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South China Sea

US vows to defend Philippines, including in South China Sea

Blinken tells counterpart Locsin that Washington rejects China's maritime claims

An expeditionary fast transport ship, littoral combat ship and helicopter of the U.S. Navy participate in an exercise in the South China Sea in October 2019. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

NEW YORK -- The U.S. is committed to the defense of the Philippines, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken told counterpart Teodoro Locsin Jr. in a phone call Wednesday.

"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," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

The secretary "also underscored that the United States rejects China's maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention," Price said, adding that Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of Beijing's pressure.

The strong pledge of support echoes the assurances that senior officials in President Joe Biden's administration have given to Japan over the defense of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.

Blinken and Locsin reaffirmed that a strong U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, Price said.

The top American diplomat chose to call his Philippine counterpart the first among the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

"It shows that the administration understands that repairing the U.S.-Philippine alliance and making sure Manila halts the threats to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement are a top priority, and absolutely vital to any successful strategy in the South China Sea," Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Nikkei Asia.

The Visiting Forces Agreement, which facilitates the entry of American troops into the Philippines for annual military drills, has been a source of contention between Washington and Manila for some time. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced last February that he was terminating the agreement after the U.S. Congress moved to impose sanctions on top Philippine officials accused of human rights abuses.

Duterte later punted on the decision to officially abrogate the 1998 agreement, using it as leverage against both Washington and Beijing.

U.S. Marines depart the well deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown during an annual bilateral training exercise conducted with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty Between the U.S. and the Republic of the Philippines declares that the two countries are determined to "defend themselves against external armed attack, so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the Pacific Area."

Article 4 of the treaty stipulates that each country recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either party "would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes."

The next article articulates that "an armed attack" includes any such strike on the metropolitan territory of either party, or on the island territories under a party's jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

As with the assurances to Japan, the Biden administration looks to assure Manila, and tell Beijing -- with which the Philippines has maritime disputes in the South China Sea -- that Washington would consider any attack on the Philippines equivalent to an attack on American soil.

But vagueness in both security treaties leaves some unknowns. The treaties promise that the U.S. "would act to meet the common dangers" but do not spell out that American forces would be deployed to defend the partners' territory.

The fact that any action would be "in accordance with its constitutional processes" suggests that if Congress opposed such action, options may be limited.

"Only the NATO treaty mandates an automatic military response," CSIS' Poling said. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states explicitly that an armed attack against one or more members in Europe or North America "shall be considered an attack against them all" and that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them "will assist the Party or Parties so attacked" by taking necessary action, including the use of armed force, "to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

Poling told Nikkei that for America's treaties with such non-NATO nations as Japan, the Philippines and Australia, "the language is meant to provide both sides some leeway to consult and decide whether a military response or some other answer would be best to meet the immediate threat."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, meanwhile, insisted Thursday that the country's sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea "have been formed in the course of a long history," and are in line with international law and practice.

Stressing that China is "committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes through negotiation and consultation with other countries directly concerned," he in effect told the U.S. to stay out, saying "We hope countries outside the region will duly respect the efforts of China and other regional countries to properly handle maritime disputes and safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea."

Hu Xijin, the influential editor of the hawkish Chinese media Global Times, tweeted: "It seems Blinken's words can be translated as saying: The Philippines can boldly oppose China and the US supports you. Hopefully Philippine people are smart enough not to become cannon fodder of the US' South China Sea policy, because they will be fooled."

Blinken spoke on the same day with Don Pramudwinai, Thailand's deputy prime minister and foreign minister. The two "reaffirmed the strength of the United States-Thailand defense alliance, reviewed global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and discussed the importance of working together to advance our shared prosperity, security and values across the free and open Indo-Pacific region," Price said.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. secretary spoke with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Blinken "emphasized the importance of cooperation, including through multilateral organizations and mechanisms like the Quad, to tackle shared challenges such as climate change, COVID-19 and global health security," Price said, referring to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

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