December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Talks on South China Sea expected to touch on Chinese defense system there

THE INAUGURAL bilateral consultations that the Philippines and China will hold today on the South China Sea issue will also touch on Beijing’s reported installation of rocket launchers in a disputed reef in the sea.

The state-run Defense Times newspaper, in a Tuesday report on its WeChat account, said Norinco CS/AR-1 55mm anti-frogman rocket launcher defense systems with the capability to discover, identify and attack enemy combat divers had been installed on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, a South China Sea chain.

Fiery Cross Reef is administered by China but also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has conducted extensive land reclamation work at the contested area, including building an airport, one of several Chinese-controlled features in the South China Sea where China has carried out such work.

In a press briefing on Thursday, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella said China’s latest move to beef up its military presence in the contested sea will be “opened up” in the bilateral consultations with the Asian power.

Mr. Abella also doubts that China would “hold back” its billion dollars’ worth of pledges to the Philippines should the latter press its maritime claims during the talks. “I think those are two separate situations,” the spokesperson said.

“I specifically heard the President (Rodrigo R. Duterte) saying he will bring this up and these are items that will be touched on,” Mr. Abella added.

Indeed, today’s bilateral meeting in China’s Guiyang City is seen to put the maritime row issue on a “separate track” while Manila and Beijing foster economic and diplomatic ties.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana will lead the country’s delegation while China will be represented by Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua. Both sides agreed to meet twice a year.

Mr. Duterte visited Beijing for the second time last week and had separate dialogues with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the China-sponsored Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

Before today’s discussion on the South China Sea, Mr. Duterte has set aside the arbitral ruling until a later time, a position he has maintained since last year. -- Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral, with a report from Reuters