by Oleg Burunov
Territories in the South China Sea are claimed by an array of countries, including China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The US has no claims to the area, but it regularly sends its warships to the region for so-called “freedom of navigation” missions.
US President Joe Biden’s government has pledged that Washington will help Manila in case of an armed attack in the South China Sea, the Philippines’ Ambassador to America Jose Manuel Romualdez said during a virtual press conference on Friday.
Romualdez added that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had told Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin in a recent phone call that the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty between the two nations “will apply to [potential] armed attacks against the Philippines”.
The envoy’s remarks came a few days after the US State Department, in a separate statement Wednesday, said Blinken spoke with Locsin about the treaty’s application “to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea”.
The statement followed Locsin’s pledge last year to invoke Manila’s defence agreement with Washington if Beijing moves to attack Philippine vessels in the area. He also made it clear that Manila would go ahead with its air patrols over the area despite China’s rejection of such flyovers as “illegal provocations”.
“They can call it illegal provocations, you can’t change their minds. They already lost the arbitral award”, the foreign secretary said, in an apparent reference to an international tribunal’s decision in 2016 to rule against most of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In June 2020, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern over Beijing’s increasing activity in the area, calling on parties “to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law”.
In a separate development that month, the Philippines announced the reversal of its previous decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, referring to “political and other developments in the region”.
The move followed Duterte instructing the government in February to terminate the VFA, adding that “it’s about time we [the Philippines] rely on ourselves”.
The VFA accord, which was signed in 1998 and is seen as an essential part of the two nations’ Mutual Defence Treaty, stipulates the training of US military personnel, including the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard on Philippine territory.
Beijing claims sovereignty over much of the South China Sea and has built military bases on artificial islands in the area. Also having territorial claims to the zone are the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The US views the South China Sea as an international waterway and routinely defies Beijing with patrols by US and allied warships in so-called freedom of navigation exercises.