Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to support Southeast Asian countries in a long-standing dispute with China over sovereignty in the South China Sea.
The new senior US diplomat made the pledge during a phone call with his Filipino counterpart, Teodoro Locsin, on Wednesday. Locsin had previously lodged an official diplomatic protest against Beijing’s decision to allow its coast guard, which is active in the disputed waters, open fire on foreign ships.
Blinken “has pledged to support Southeast Asian claimants in the face of pressure from the PRC,” the State Department said in a statement following the appeal, referring to China by its official name.
Blinken and Locsin agreed that the alliance between the United States and the Philippines was “vital for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
Blinken “underlined the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of the two countries, and its clear application to armed attacks against Philippine armed forces, public ships or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea” , the State Department added.
The United States and the Philippines have been military allies for decades, but since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, he has brought the country closer to China despite Beijing’s more assertive claims in the China Sea. and the construction of military bases and artificial islands in China. disputed seas.
Blinken on Wednesday sought to challenge this, saying the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea “to the extent that they go beyond sea areas” permitted by international law.
Over the weekend, the United States also sent a group of carriers to the waterway to promote “freedom of the seas.” China is planning its own military exercises this week.
‘Threat of war’
Last Friday, China passed legislation allowing its coast guard to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign ships, including the demolition of structures built by other countries on reefs as well. claimed by China.
After initially dismissing the law as “none of our business”, Locsin changed his mind and lodged a diplomatic protest, calling the movement a “threat of war”.
“Although the enactment of the law is a sovereign prerogative, it – given the affected area or for that matter the open South China Sea – is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law; which, if not challenged, is submission to him, ”Locsin added.
The new Chinese law also allows the coast guard to board and inspect foreign ships in waters China considers its own, which poses more problems given the scope of Beijing’s territorial claims in the sea. from southern China.
China claims about 90% of the waterway of strategic importance, based on its controversial “nine-dash line”. An international tribunal in The Hague dismissed China’s claim in 2016, following a case brought by the Philippines, but China refuses to recognize the ruling.
China maintains a constant presence of coastguard vessels hundreds of kilometers off its mainland, close to disputed islands and often in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of its neighbors. They have often been accused of acting aggressively, disrupting fishing boats and energy exploration.
Besides the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also have claims on the sea.
Standing with friends, allies
Blinken’s appeal to Locsin is also seen as part of a renewed commitment to the region under the new administration of US President Joe Biden.
In multiple appeals and statements, he and his senior security officials highlighted support for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all traditional allies of the United States.
Biden told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday that his administration is committed to defending Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.
State Department spokesman Ned Price also warned China of the threat from Taiwan after repeatedly sending more than a dozen fighters and military bombers through the air defense zone of the island.
“We will stand alongside our friends and allies to advance our security and values of common prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region – and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan,” Price said in a statement.
“Our commitment to Taiwan is strong.”