United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that the U.S. will defend the Philippines in the event of an attack in the South China Sea, offering reassurance as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) perpetuates an aggressive military stance in the disputed waterway.
“An armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels and aircraft will invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments” under the nations’ defense treaty, Blinken said in early August 2022 while meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in Manila, according to Reuters. “The Philippines is an irreplaceable friend, partner and ally to the United States.”
(Pictured: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. arrive for their meeting at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, in August 2022.)
Philippine lawmakers in early August 2022 backed a bill to rename a disputed portion of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea to boost Manila’s territorial claims, BenarNews reported.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) refuses to acknowledge a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal invalidating its claims to large portions of the South China Sea in a dispute with the Philippines. The ruling said that the PRC was violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights to fish and explore resources within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the sea.
Marcos recently said he would work with the PRC and other nations for “mutually beneficial outcomes,” but he also vowed to protect his nation’s sovereign territories.
“On the area of foreign policy, I will not preside over any process that will abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power,” Marcos said, according to BenarNews. “If we agree, we will cooperate and we will work together. If we differ, let us talk some more until we agree. After all, that is the Filipino way. But we will not waver. We will stand firm on our independent foreign policy with the national interests as our primordial guide.”
Beijing is increasingly assertive in seeking to control the South China Sea through its maritime militia. The fleet seemingly engages in commercial fishing. In truth, it operates alongside the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Chinese coast guard “to achieve Chinese political objectives in disputed waters,” according to “Pulling Back the Curtain on China’s Maritime Militia,” a November 2021 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).
“Since the completion of China’s artificial island outposts in 2016, militia boats have been deployed to the Spratlys in greater numbers and on a more constant basis than ever before,” the report stated. “Militia have accompanied Chinese law enforcement at several oil and gas standoffs with Malaysia and Vietnam and have participated in mass deployments at targeted features; nearly 100 militia boats deployed near Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in 2018, and approximately 200 gathered at unoccupied Whitsun Reef in the spring of 2021.”
Remote-sensing data revealed that as many as 300 militia vessels operate in the Spratly Islands on any given day, according to CSIS and C4ADS. “Militia activities violate several tenets of international law,” the report said. “Efforts to block the lawful activities of other claimant states within their exclusive economic zones are in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law.”
The CCP has fully militarized at least three of several artificial features it built in the South China Sea, stocking them with laser and jamming equipment, fighter jets, and anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, according to The Associated Press (AP). “Over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Commander John Aquilino said, according to an AP report in early 2022. “They have advanced all their capabilities, and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”
The ever-present tensions in the South China Sea prompted the U.S. and the Philippines to strengthen their security pact through a General Security of Military Information Agreement, allowing for increased intelligence-sharing and equipment modernization to respond to Chinese assertiveness. It builds on the allies’ more than 75 years of diplomatic relations.
“The United States and the Philippines affirm that the PRC cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim — including any exclusive economic zone claims derived from Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands — vis-à-vis the Philippines in areas that the Tribunal found to be in the Philippines EEZ or on its continental shelf,” according to a “Joint Vision for a 21st Century United States-Philippines Partnership” outlined by the U.S. State Department. “Additionally, the PRC’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources. The United States and the Philippines express their support for compliance with the international law of the sea and are continuing activities and cooperation to exercise and support safety and freedoms of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea in the South China Sea and around the world.”
Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of U.S. 7th Fleet, said in August 2022 that there has also been an “obviously concerning” increase in unsafe aerial intercepts by the Chinese military in the South China Sea, according to CNBC. He also underscored the need to challenge the PRC’s disputed South China Sea claims.
“If you don’t challenge it, the problem is that it’ll become the norm … People just accept it,” Thomas said. “And then all of a sudden, people can make claims like the entire South China Sea is their territorial sea.”
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS