In a strong message to China, the Philippines have made it clear that it would turn to the US for military help during ongoing flare-ups between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.
Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said Manila would invoke its defence agreement with the US if China attacks its naval vessels in the disputed waters. “If something happens that is beyond incursion but is, in fact, an attack on say a Filipino naval vessel…..means then I call up Washington DC,” he added.
Since 1951, the US and the Philippines have had a Mutual Defence Treaty that commits them to support each other in the event if either is attacked.
The comments by the Philippines Foreign Secretary marks the first time President Rodrigo Duterte administration openly declaring its intention to side with the US against Chinese expansionist agenda.
The Foreign Secretary said Manila would continue air patrols over the South China Sea despite Beijing calling it an illegal provocation.
“They can call it an illegal provocation, you cannot change their minds. They already lost the arbitral award,” he said referring to the 2016 decision by an international tribunal that ruled against China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea.
Locsin also said the US’ military presence in Asia is needed as the rivalry between Washington and Beijing has intensified. He added it would be in Philippine’s interest for the US to maintain its military presence in the region and he reiterated the country “never stopped cooperation” with its long-time security ally. “We have a balance of power situation, we need the US presence in Asia,” he stated.
The two powers are arguing over issues from trade to what the US sees as aggressive moves by China’s armed forces, especially in the disputed South China Sea and around Chinese-claimed Taiwan.
The US has long opposed China’s territorial claims on the South China Sea, regularly sending warships to demonstrate freedom of navigation there. It hardened its position last month by rejecting Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea, a move which Beijing condemned.
On August 24, Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused China of illegally occupying Filipino maritime territory and said, “China’s nine-dash line used to claim most of the South China Sea is a fabrication.” The remarks came amid a fresh row between both countries over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which has been a flashpoint since long.
The Philippines Foreign Ministry lodged a diplomatic protest last week over what it said was the illegal confiscation by China’s coastguard of fishing equipment near the shoal.
China condemned patrols in the South China Sea and declared it’s beyond reproach and air patrols by the Philippines infringe on its sovereignty. Beijing defended the coast guard’s activities and urged Manila to immediately stop what it described as illegal provocations.
Lorenzana made it clear that the area was within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). “Their (China’s) so-called historical rights over an area enclosed by their nine-line does not exist except in their imagination,” he said.
“Our fishermen are within our EEZ and likewise our ships and planes conduct patrol sorties within our area. They (China) are the ones who have been doing provocations by illegally occupying some features within our EEZ. Hence, they have no right to claim they are enforcing their laws,” he further added.
In 2012, China had seized Scarborough from the Philippines following a tense stand-off. The shoal, one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, is located 240 kilometres west of Philippines’ main island of Luzon and 650 kilometres from the nearest major Chinese landmass, the southern island province of Hainan, is one of the region’s richest fishing grounds.
China claims most of the sea, often invoking its so-called nine-dash line to justify its alleged historic rights to the key waterway that is also contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei. It rejected a 2016 UN-backed tribunal’s ruling that its claims were without legal basis.