MANILA -- The Philippine defense secretary lambasted China on Tuesday for its latest military installations in the South China Sea in a rare and sharp rebuke from a senior official in the cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte.
"The actions of China in militarizing those disputed features are very troubling," said Delfin Lorenzana. "They do not square with the Chinese government's rhetoric that its purpose is peaceful and friendly."
Last month, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, said China "appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems, at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands". Manila later concurred with this assessment.
Beijing has claimed ownership of almost the entire South China Sea, including areas Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also claim. It has in the past three years "reclaimed" at least seven underwater features as artificial islands.
Lorenzana issued his punchy statement while Liu Zhemnin, China's vice foreign minister, was in Manila for "political consultations" with his Philippine counterparts.
Since Duterte entered office on June 30, the Philippines has toned down its rhetoric on China in an attempt to rebuild relations damaged by the territorial dispute. Duterte visited China in October and secured some $24 billion in bilateral deals. He also put to one side a verdict from a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague in the Netherlands which last year found in favor of the Philippines. China has never recognized the court's jurisdiction and wants the dispute settled through bilateral negotiations.
"Notwithstanding the warming of relations between our countries, the Philippine government would be remiss in its duty to protect its national interest if it does not protest, question and seek clarification from China on the presence of weapons in the Spratlys," said Lorenzana.
Lorenzana noted that some of the reclaimed islands are within a Philippine exclusive economic zone, according to the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) "to which China is a signatory and affirmed by the PCA ruling of July 12, 2016".
Beijing has not responded to the remarks. Earlier in the day, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told the local media that Duterte has filed at least three "note verbales" by way of low-key protests against China's activities in the disputed area.
The various high-level comments came after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines last week. He told Duterte that "the issue of the South China Sea is linked directly to regional peace and stability and is of concern to the entire international community".
Tokyo has no claims in the South China Sea, but has its own territorial dispute with Beijing over some islands in the East China Sea. Japan is also the top regional ally of Washington, which is wary of China's growing maritime ambitions.
Rex Tillerson, the incoming U.S. secretary of state, last week told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Washington will "send China a clear signal that first the island-building stops and second your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed".