The United States on Monday reaffirmed its commitment to come to the defense of the Philippines against any armed attack in the South China Sea.
The reaffirmation was issued in time for the fifth anniversary of the arbitral ruling rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated Beijing’s excessive claims over the South China Sea and upheld Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.
The Biden administration also upheld the foreign policy laid down by former US President Donald Trump rejecting China's massive claim on the resource-rich waters.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Beijing to stop aggressive and provocative acts in the South China Sea, warning that any attack on the Philippines will trigger a response from the US.
The Philippines and the US have a 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty that binds America to defend its Asian ally from foreign aggression.
"The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020, policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea. We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty," Blinken said.
Blinken's statement sustained the declaration of the Trump administration to support the 2016 Arbitral Award rendered by the United Nations-backed PCA ruling.
"We call on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small," Blinken said.
However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called Blinken’s statement “extremely irresponsible” and accused the US of “hyping” an “illegal award.”
“The award of the arbitration is illegal, null and void. It is nothing more than a piece of waste paper. China does not accept or participate in the arbitration, nor does it accept or recognize the award,” it said in a statement.
"The political agenda of the US to hype up the South China Sea issue by taking advantage of the 5th anniversary of the illegal award can't be more obvious," the ministry said.
“China's sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea have been formed in the course of a long history... No country raised any objection to this position until the 1970s,” it added.
On July 12, 2016, the PCA in The Hague, Netherlands ruled in favor of Manila on the case filed against Beijing in 2013 and invalidated China's claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
China rejected the PCA ruling and insists on historic rights over nearly the entire waters, which is dotted by clusters of islands, cays, shoals and reefs with rich fishing areas and natural oil and gas.
Blinken said the Philippines and China, pursuant to their treaty obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "are legally bound to comply with this decision."
"Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway," Blinken said.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan have been locked in long-simmering territorial rifts in the South China Sea that analysts fear will be Asia’s next potential flashpoint for a major armed conflict.
Although not a party to the disputes, the US maintained that keeping the South China Sea – a major trade route – open and accessible is within its national interest.
From 2016 to 2019, the US has provided the Philippines over $550 million in military assistance – the biggest ever it received in the past 10 years, according to Philippine government officials.
"Freedom of the seas is an enduring interest of all nations and is vital to global peace and prosperity," Blinken said.
In a separate statement, Global Affairs Canada -- in charge of Canada’s diplomatic relations -- reiterated the need for all parties involved to comply with the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal five years ago.
“It is imperative that all parties in the region demonstrate restraint and avoid taking action unilaterally, as this would exacerbate tensions and threaten regional stability,” Global Affairs Canada said.
Canada is “particularly concerned” by China’s “escalatory and destabilizing actions in the East and South China Seas.”
These actions include the “militarization of disputed features and the use of naval, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels to intimidate and threaten the ships of other states.”
Several western diplomats also expressed their support for the Philippines and the Hague Arbitral Tribunal ruling five years ago on Twitter.
The delegation of the European Union in the Philippines said that what happens in the South China Sea “matters to the EU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and the whole world.”
“We further reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and the right of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, as well as the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS,” the EU delegation said.
Anke Reiffenstuel, German Ambassador to the Philippines, said that the Philippines “wrote history” with the Hague Arbitration Tribunal ruling.
“The rules-based maritime order laid down in UNCLOS ensures international cooperation and stability,” Reiffenstuel said.
The Palace on Monday said the Duterte administration has done all it could in the maritime row against China.
This includes President Duterte’s speech before the UN General Assembly in 2020, where he asserted the 2016 ruling in Manila’s favor, his spokesman Harry Roque said.
"We have done all that we could, given the absence of an enforcement mechanism under international law," Roque said in a press briefing.
At the same time Roque said the government would look into recent reports that a group of fishermen were barred from fishing in the West Philippine Sea by Chinese boats, even as he expressed doubts that the claims were true.
He said he had personal knowledge that almost all the fishermen were able to pursue their livelihoods in the Scarborough Shoal.
Despite the Palace claims, critics took the administration to task for failing to take advantage of the 2016 ruling.
Vice President Leni Robredo said the administration has failed to use the ruling as an instrument to pursue the country’s interests and failed to invoke it in strong enough terms in the forums that matter most.
She said the government bowed to “those who bully their way into our waters.”
“Alliances that could have been strengthened were allowed to erode, while those who bully their way into our waters have been treated with deference, and at times, subservience,” she said.
In the Senate, Senator Panfilo Lacson said the Philippines must continue pushing to complete its victory from five years ago.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon filed a resolution commemorating the Philippine’s historic legal victory. Which came days after the term of the late President Simeon Benigno Aquino III ended in 2016.
Lacson, who chairs the Senate committee on national defense and security, peace, unification, and reconciliation, noted the Philippines has yet to come up with a comprehensive pro-Filipino policy to complete the victory achieved five years ago at The Hague.
"Our country needs a foreign policy that is neither pro-China or pro-US. It must only be pro-Filipino. We need a foreign policy that unites us as Filipinos, not divides us into red and yellow," Lacson said.
He related that much remains to be done amid China's increasing presence in the Southeast Asian region.
"Whatever we have done, or have failed to do, and what we must continue to pursue as part of our prerogatives as a law-abiding, democratic, and sovereign nation under this administration--unfortunately--has accrued little to our 'accumulated advantage' in the South China Sea and in the context of Philippine-China relations,” Lacson said.
On the contrary, Lacson said the country has done very little in stemming the tide of an increasing Chinese footprint into the ASEAN region's foreign policy, economy, and security.
In the House, Deputy Speaker and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez filed a resolution urging Congress to declare July 12 of every year as National West Philippine Sea Victory Day.
“This declaration will celebrate our government’s July 12, 2016 triumph before the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration, which upheld our country’s sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea, much of which our frenemy China is illegally claiming as part of its territory,” he said in his resolution.
Rodriguez said under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Kalayaan Island group and portions of the Spratly islands in the Palawan area and Panatag Shoal off Zambales and Pangasinan are part of the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone.He said China is illegally occupying some of these islands, including Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, which Filipino fishermen call Bajo de Masinloc and which Beijing seized in 2012 after a standoff between the Chinese Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard.