Palace concerned with China's nuclear program in South China Sea

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A July 2016 file photo shows a Chinese H-6K bomber patrolling islands and reefs, including Huangyan Island in the South China Sea.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 23) — Malacañang expressed concern with China's planned nuclear program in the South China Sea as reported by the Pentagon.

"We're concerned about the entry of any and all nuclear weapons into the Philippine territory because our constitution provides we are a nuclear-free zone," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a press briefing Thursday.

He added that the concern extends to all nuclear-capable states.

China earlier slammed the United States' Department of Defense annual report, saying that Washington is making presumptuous and irresponsible comments on Beijing's defense development.

"China stays committed to a peaceful development path and follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. It is always a builder of world peace, contributor to global development and defender of international order," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said in a statement on August 18.

Lu said Beijing's moves in the contested waters are legitimate and beyond reproach. He added the development of defense structures aims to safeguard China's national independence.

"We urge the U.S. side to abandon the outdated cold-war and zero-sum mentality, put China's strategic intention and national defense development in perspective, stop issuing such irresponsible report year after year and maintain the steady development of the bilateral relations and military-to-military ties between China and the U.S. with concrete actions," Lu added.

Beijing's nuclear outposts

The Pentagon had warned that China may bring nuclear power to its outposts in the South China Sea.

It said Beijing has completed shore-based infrastructure on four outposts in the Spratly Islands in 2016: Mabini Reef, McKennan Reef, Burgos Reefs, and Calderon Reefs.

While China has stopped its land reclamation activities in the area — which added 3,200 acres (12.94 square kilometers) of land to the seven features it occupied — the U.S. department said  Beijing may look into nuclear stations to power these islands.

"China's plans to power these islands may add a nuclear element to the territorial dispute. In 2017, China indicated development plans may be underway to power islands and reefs in the typhoon-prone South China Sea with floating nuclear power stations; development reportedly is to begin prior to 2020," read the report released last week.

The outposts may be able to support military operations, but the U.S. report said no permanent large-scale air or naval presence has been observed in the islands.

It added the development of structures in these outposts could be an attempt to bolster its de facto control over the region.

"The airfields, berthing areas, and resupply facilities will allow China to maintain a more flexible and persistent coast guard and military presence in the area. This would improve China's ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them," it said.

China argues its activities throughout most of the South China Sea were backed by a historical nine-dash line claim. A ruling in a case brought by the Philippines to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 invalidated this claim, but China refused to observe the decision.

A nuclear arsenal?

The Pentagon also reported that Beijing invests resources to maintain and modernize a limited but survivable nuclear force.

"China's nuclear weapons policy prioritizes the maintenance of a nuclear force able to survive a first strike and to respond with sufficient strength to inflict unacceptable damage on an enemy," the report read.

However, China follows a "no first use (NFU)" policy, which states that it would only resort to nuclear force in response to a nuclear strike.

The NFU also states Beijing will not use nuclear forces to threaten non-nuclear-weapon states, and in nuclear-weapon-free zones.

The Philippines, along with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia have rival claims with China over islands in the South China Sea. The four are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and are thus bound by the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) treaty. A sixth claimant, Taiwan, is considered by China as a renegade province.

The SEANWFZ, enforced in 1997, prohibits member-states to manufacture nuclear weapons, and prevents stationing of nuclear explosive devices in the member-states' respective territories.

The treaty is open to signatures of China, the United States, and Russia, among other nuclear-weapon-capable states, but they have yet to sign.

China's military force, the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), has developed a "nuclear triad" among its rocket force (PLARF), Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF), the Pentagon report added.

Beijing's DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile which came out in 2016 is capable of striking targets in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the South China Sea, it added.

The H-6k bomber China flew over islands in the South China Sea in March was believed to be nuclear-capable, and may have damaging effects on the entire Philippines, earlier reports said.

Malacañang previously shrugged off reports of missile structures in the West Philippine Sea outposts, saying these were not a cause for concern since the missile were not directed at the Philippines.