This week, Washington warned Beijing against what Manila and Taipei see as increasingly aggressive moves, reminding Beijing of Washington’s obligations to its partners.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters an armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, would trigger Washington’s obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Pact.
“We share the concerns of our Philippine allies regarding the continued reported massing of PRC maritime militia near the Whitsun Reef,” Price said, referring to the People’s Republic of China which earlier claimed the ships were there for safety from bad weather – not seen anytime anywhere in the area from the day the vessels were spotted in March.
Interesting logic Beijing initially used, that the vessels were not manned by the Chinese militia and that they were just fishing – an insulting line of thought, perhaps convinced that the Filipinos would buy as quick that kind of reasoning.
Washington also called on Beijing to abide by the 2016 arbitral tribunal award, as it reiterated its “strong support” for the Philippines amid the presence of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef — part of the country’s exclusive economic zone — and other parts of the West Philippine Sea.
Price said, loudly for the Chinese to hear, that the United States would defend the Philippines in the event of an armed attack against Filipino vessels in the contested South China Sea under the two nations’ Mutual Defense Treaty.
“As we have stated before, an armed attack against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the
US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Price said.
More than 200 Chinese boats were first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island in the contested South China Sea, although many have since scattered across the Spratly Islands.
China, which claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea, has refused weeks of appeals by the Philippines to withdraw the vessels, which Manila has said unlawfully entered its exclusive economic zone.
In the meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs promised a barrage of diplomatic protests against China for “every day of delay” in withdrawing their ships from Julian Felipe Reef.
Last April 5, it criticized China’s “clearly false narrative” of expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea and rejected its assertion that the reef and its waters are their traditional fishing ground.
The 2016 Arbitral Award issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration conclusively settled the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlement in the South China Sea.
It ruled that claims to historic rights or sovereign rights that exceed the geographic and substantive limits of maritime entitlements under UNCLOS are “without lawful effect,” therefore invalidating China’s nine-dash line that covers nearly 80 percent in the area and overlaps with the country’s waters.
The Department of National Defense has welcomed Washington’s admonition to China against the use of force on Philippine public vessels and aircraft, which are performing their constitutional mandate to protect and defend Philippine rights in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, which DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said was an additional affirmation of the long-standing bilateral bonds between Manila and Washington.
He added this proved the strength of the alliance and mutual commitment of the Philippines and the US to promote the rules-based international order.
Andolong said the Philippines was continuously in talks with the US on the matter of mutual defense, stressing that both parties “are committed to undertake their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty so that neither stands alone in these issues involving the two states’ inherent right of self-defense, individually and collectively.”
Andolong said the DND would keep all options open in managing the evolving situation in the West Philippine Sea, including “leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the US.”
Coming through as a faint echo was the disclosure Tuesday by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that its 44 vessels – note the possessive personal pronoun which was not there in early March – would not
permanently stay at the Julian Felipe Reef as it dismissed the Philippines’ “negative influence” on the matter.
“I believe I’ve just made it very clear. China has no such plan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in his daily briefing on April 6, after a reporter asked if the Chinese vessels would maintain a permanent presence at the Julian Felipe Reef.
“It is a customary practice running over a thousand years for Chinese fishing boats to work and shelter in relevant waters. I don’t know why relevant sides refer to the Chinese fishermen as ‘maritime militia.’
It shows malicious intent driven by ulterior motives,” he said.
“It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter during rough sea conditions,” Lijian added.
But what rough sea conditions was he talking about?
Did he perhaps believe the Filipinos and other nationalities would believe him?