MANILA, Philippines – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government will investigate a report that China launched ballistic missiles in the West Philippine Sea last weekend.
Lorenzana told reporters in a text message that although they did not have direct knowledge of the missile launch, "We will conduct our own inquiry and will decide later what to do if proven correct."
On Tuesday, July 2, NBC News reported that China had been conducting anti-ship ballistic missile tests in the South China Sea, including the area Filipinos refer to as the West Philippine Sea.
The report added that China's tests will continue until Wednesday, July 3.
A separate report by Reuters news agency quoted Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn as saying the missiles were launched "near the Spratlys," which the Philippines calls the Kalayaan Island Group.
Anti-ship ballistic missiles are highly sophisticated warheads that can be guided to directly hit moving vessels, and are capable of crippling if not destroying large ships including aircraft carriers.
In 2018, China installed surface-to-air and anti-ship missile facilities in at least 3 of its 7 military outposts on artificial islands it reclaimed in the Kalayaan Island Group. Those outposts are on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, Zamora (Subi) Reef, and Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.
That was despite China's statements from as early as 2015 that it would not militarize its reclaimed islands and would only use them for humanitarian and environmental purposes.
The Pentagon called China's latest missile tests "disturbing," Reuters reported, adding that it was contrary to Chinese pledges of non-militarization.
Commenting on these reports, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim restated Washington's position on the South China Sea dispute.
"I'll just make a very general comment. We urge all countries to refrain from provocative and unilateral actions that's inconsistent with international norms and practices," Kim told reporters on Wednesday, July 3.
"We have stated our position very clearly for some time now, and I believe our friends in the Philippines agree that countries, including China, should refrain from such actions," he said.
Although the US sides neither with the Philippines nor with China in their sovereignty dispute, the superpower insists on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has checked Beijing's moves to dominate the strategic waterway.
China has not confirmed the missile tests but it did say it conducted military activities in the area over the weekend, the Reuters report said.
China has relentlessly tightened its grip on the waters and land features that an arbitral tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea declared to be within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. The July 12, 2016 arbitral ruling affirmed the Philippines' sovereign rights over the area.
Recently, the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in the Recto Bank raised concerns that China is using its fishers as militias to swarm and control the West Philippine Sea. – with a report from Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.