US President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reaffirmed America’s commitment to defend the Philippines against any armed attack in the South China Sea after China g passed a law authorizing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in the hotly contested waterways.
Blinken made this pledge in a call to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin on Thursday after he took his oath as the new US top diplomat.
“Secretary Blinken and Secretary Locsin reaffirmed that a strong US-Philippinealliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the US State Department said in a statement. “Secretary Blinken stressed the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations, and its clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.”
Observers viewed Blinken’s statement as an indication of the Biden administration policy on South China Sea disputes and how it would continue to support its regional allies, particularly its long-time Southeast Asian ally, the Philippines, which is locked in a maritime dispute with China over a portion of the South China Sea.
The Philippines and the United States have an existing Mutual Defense Treaty that binds the US to defend its Asian ally from external aggression.
The US top diplomat also emphasized that “the US rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law” as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.
“Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure,” the State Department said.
Blinken and Locsin both “committed to continue building upon a relationship founded on shared strategic interests and history, democratic values, and strong people-to-people ties.”
While the US is not a party to the disputes in the South China Sea, it has declared that it is in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight across the contested waterways where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
The passage of the China’s new law allowing its coast guards to fire on foreign vessels in its claimed territories in the South China Sea is expected to stoke tensions in the region.
The law authorizes the Chinese coast guard to undertake “all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”
This prompted the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest against China, with the Locsin describing the law as a “verbal threat of war to any country.”
“While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one—given the area involved or for that matter the open South China Sea—is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law; which, if unchallenged, is submission to it,” Locsin added.
Malacanang is confident that the country’s recent diplomatic protest would not have any impact on the close relations with Beijing, including its talks for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It has no effect because the discussion is about vaccines. The vaccine is actually a humanitarian act of the entire planet Earth in response to a humanitarian disaster,” presidential spokeman Harry Roque said at a news conference.
Roque also defended the filing of a protest against the new Chinese law.
“This is consistent with our position that while states can enact laws as part of their sovereignty, they must do so in compliance with the UN [United Nations] Charter – prohibiting the use of force unless by way of self-defense or when authorized by the [UN] Security Council,” Roque said.
Roque said the protest would prove that the Philippines is “fully committed to the rule of law and will assert all its rights available under existing principles of international law to defend its interests.”
The Philippines won its case against China at an international tribunal in The Hague, which invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims to almost the entire South China Sea. The landmark decision also ruled that China violated Filipino fishermen’s traditional fishing rights in Scarborough Shoal, but did not make a stand on who should have sovereignty over the area.
The arbitral ruling largely recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights in other areas within its exclusive economic zone that China claims.
However, China rejects the ruling and insists that it owns most of the global waterway.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States should be reaffirmed to maintain a balance in South China Sea.
Lacson, who heads the Senate’s committee on national defense and security, said Blinken spoke with Locsin.
“The US-PH Mutual Defense Treaty is one yet untapped weapon in our arsenal. I certainly hope we do not draw that weapon. Meantime, we might as well keep it there,” Lacson said on his Twitter account.
On Thursday, Blinken tweeted he had a “great conversation” with Locsin, adding they will “continue to build upon the strong US-Philippine alliance with our shared interests, history, values, and strong people-to-people ties.”
Meanwhile. Sen. Leila de Lima criticized the Armed Forces of the Philippines for being too eager to occupy university campuses to fight imaginary communists and doing nothing to fend off actual communists who bully Filipino fishermen in Philippine waters.
“Defend West Philippine Sea! Protect our territory,” she urged the AFP.