Some of the about 220 Chinese vessels reported by the Philippine Coast Guard, and believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are pictured at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, March 7, 2021. — PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/NATIONAL TASK FORCE-WEST PHILIPPINE SEA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

The United States has vowed to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, reiterating calls for China to abide by a 2016 arbitration ruling that voided its claim to more than 80% of the waterway. 

US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken made the call during his first face-to-face meeting with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, US State Department spokesman Edward Price said in a statement posted on the agency’s website. 

“The Philippines is a strong supporter of the rules-based international order including the freedom of navigation, and we’ll certainly be talking about that, and many more things,” Mr. Blinken told journalists there before meeting with his Philippine counterpart, according to a transcript posted by the agency. 

The State secretary also said the US was committed to help the Philippines combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to the statement. The two statesmen also discussed economic engagement and human rights. 

He also thanked President Rodrigo R. Duterte for recalling a decision to end a military agreement between the two nations on the deployment of troops for war games. 

“We were very gratified to have the recent renewal of the visiting forces agreement,” Mr. Blinken said. “We are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in combating COVID-19. and looking at ways to build back better from the pandemic.” 

Mr. Locsin praised America’s fast vaccine rollout.

The Philippines and US are celebrating the 70th anniversary of their Mutual Defense Treaty and 75 years of diplomatic ties. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan