Top US diplomat backs Philippines in dispute with Beijing over South China Sea maritime claims

Top US diplomat backs Philippines in dispute with Beijing over South China Sea maritime claims

Nicola Smith

·3-min read
 
 
The protesters display a balloon with an anti-China message during a rally near the Philippine Congress in Manila, Philippines - AP
The protesters display a balloon with an anti-China message during a rally near the Philippine Congress in Manila, Philippines – AP

The United States rejects China’s internationally disputed maritime claims in the South China Sea and will support Southeast Asian nations facing pressure from Beijing, Antony Blinken, the new secretary of state told the Philippine foreign secretary on Thursday.

Mr Blinken made the remarks to Teodoro Locsin during a round of initial phone calls intended to reset relations with Indo-Pacific and other global allies following the Trump administration’s “America First” policy.

While speaking to Mr Locsin, he stressed the importance of a long-standing mutual defence agreement between the two countries, offering assurance that Manila, which has its own claims in the South China Sea, could rely on Washington’s help if it came under attack.

“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,” said a US state department readout.

His phone call came after Mr Locsin revealed on Wednesday that the Philippines had filed a diplomatic protest over a new Chinese law to allow its coastguard to open fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a “threat of war.”

“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,” he tweeted.

There is growing disquiet in the Philippines over the introduction of the law last Friday that would permit the Chinese coastguard to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels, including demolishing other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs.

With fisher groups up in arms over China’s “display of aggression,” the presidential palace on Thursday stressed 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.”

In recent years, China has shown increasing swagger in the region, claiming almost all of the energy-rich South China Sea, which is also a major global trade route. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing claims.

Analysts say tensions over the South China Sea will likely shape up to be one of most pressing foreign policy challenges facing President Joe Biden’s new administration, and one which will require him to rely on regional alliances to help build a counterweight to Chinese military and political ambitions.

Chinese coastguard ships give chase - REUTERS
Chinese coastguard ships give chase – REUTERS

Last year the US accused China of exploiting global distraction over the coronavirus pandemic to advance its presence in the South China Sea.

Biden’s foreign policy team has signalled it will continue the firm position on Beijing forged by the Trump administration, but in a less bellicose manner.

On Saturday, a US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas”, just days after Mr Biden took office.

China on Tuesday deployed warships and said it would hold military drills of its own in the area this week.

In response to Mr Blinken’s phone call, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said that “China’s sovereignty, rights, and interests in the South China Sea have been formed over a long historical process and are in line with international laws and practices.”

He added: “China is firmly committed to safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, to resolving disputes peacefully through negotiations and consultations with other countries directly involved.”