Philippine defense chief: U.S. a ‘stabilizing force’ in South China Sea

Philippine defense chief: U.S. a ‘stabilizing force’ in South China Sea


The United States is a “stabilizing force” in the disputed South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region, the Philippine defense chief said in late January 2021, adding that Manila was optimistic about a “new era” of ties with Washington.

Manila likely will keep pursuing an independent foreign policy but is also expected to prolong a decades-old friendly relationship with the U.S. through dealings with the new administration in Washington, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

“On one hand, it is necessary for us to continuously engage with China, not only for our existing cooperation in various areas, but also for the peaceful resolution of our competing claims in the South China Sea,” Lorenzana told a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. “On the other hand, we are mindful of the role of the United States as a stabilizing force in the Indo-Pacific region and a counterbalance to China.” (Pictured: The U.S. Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Chief, foreground, and the Philippine Navy vessel BRP Ramon Alcaraz transit the South China Sea after completing a maritime cooperative activity in March 2019.)

Beijing has laid claim to most of the South China Sea using its so-called nine-dash line, an arbitrary demarcation that has been widely rejected as illegitimate.

Six other Indo-Pacific nations — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Lorenzana said he hopes to forge stronger military ties with the U.S. under the administration of President Joe Biden, who took office January 20, 2021.

“The year 2021 promises to start a new era for the U.S.-Philippines relations under a new U.S. president who seeks to reclaim America’s status as a world leader,” Lorenzana said. “Being one of America’s allies in the Indo-Asia Pacific region, the Philippines may benefit from the Biden administration’s anticipated ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy.”

Upon taking office in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signaled a shift in foreign policy away from being a traditional ally to the U.S. and toward the PRC. He appeased Beijing even after an international tribunal ruled that year in Manila’s favor regarding the South China Sea.

In late 2020, Duterte changed course at an international forum, calling out the PRC over its legal obligations to the Philippines in the waterway.

Lorenzana said he expected the appointment of Sung Kim as acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs would give Washington a “deeper understanding” of the Philippines. Kim previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Manila. He noted that the Philippines-U.S. alliance is rooted in shared democratic commitments.

His remarks came a week after the PRC passed a law that allows its coast guard to use force and fire upon ships in waters Beijing considers part of its territory. That move led to a diplomatic protest by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

A day after the PRC passed the law, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group deployed to the South China Sea.

During the foreign correspondents’ forum, the Philippine envoy to the U.S. said Manila had received assurances from new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez said Blinken noted that “the U.S. will stand with claimant countries and reiterated the previous administration’s stance as far as China’s maritime claims are concerned.”

Blinken and Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also reaffirmed their commitment to the alliance during a phone call on Blinken’s first day as America’s top diplomat.

Blinken also underscored that the nations’ Mutual Defense Treaty “will apply to armed attacks against the Philippines,” Romualdez said. “We welcome this continuation of the U.S.’s strengthened policy as regard to the South China Sea.”

Blinken and Locsin agreed that “a strong U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region,” and Blinken stressed the importance of the 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.”

In a statement, U.S. Department of State spokesman Ned Price said Blinken reiterated the U.S. position that Beijing had exceeded the maritime zones that the PRC is permitted to claim as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.

“Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure,” Price said. “The two secretaries committed to continue building upon a relationship founded on shared strategic interests and history, democratic values and strong people-to-people ties.”