By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter
THE UNITED States on Monday again vowed to defend the Philippines against potential Chinese attacks in the South China Sea, as the Southeast Asian nation marked the fifth anniversary of a United Nations-backed ruling rejecting China’s vast territorial claims in the waterway.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that an attack on Philippine Armed Forces in the South China Sea would trigger a Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.
“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine Armed Forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
That article also says “each party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the parties 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.”
Mr. Blinken also said US President Joseph R. Biden had reaffirmed his predecessor’s rejection of China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea.
“The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea,” he said, referring to ex-President Donald Trump’s repudiation of Chinese claims in the waterway, which is rich in fish, oil, gas and other natural resources, based on a 1940s nine-dash map.
The Philippines under the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III sued China before the arbitration court in the Hague given its island-building and military activities in the South China Sea. The court in 2016 favored the Philippines in a decision that China has ignored.
Mr. Duterte, who has sought closer trade and investment ties with China since he became President in 2016, in March belittled the legal victory, saying it was just a piece of paper that could end up in a trash bin.
“I pursued it but nothing happened,” he said in a televised speech in Filipino on May 5. He added that between scalawags, one could always say that “it’s just a piece of paper and I would throw it in the waste basket.”
Philippine legislators have been urging Mr. Duterte to boost Philippine alliance with the US. The tough-talking leader had criticized the US for what he claimed was its ill treatment of its former colony.
Under Mr. Aquino’s watch, the Philippines signed an enhanced defense cooperation pact with the US, the country’s key western ally.
Mr. Duterte had not decided whether to keep a visiting forces agreement with the US, his spokesman earlier said.
The President in February last year said he would end the deal on the deployment of troops for war games after the US Embassy canceled the visa of his ally Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, his former police chief who led his deadly war on drugs.
The Philippines needs a foreign policy “that is neither pro-China nor pro-US,” Senator Panfilo M. Lacson, Sr. said in a statement.
The lawmaker, who heads the Senate defense committee, said the Philippines has yet to come up with a comprehensive pro-Filipino policy “to complete the victory we achieved five years ago today.”
He said Philippine actions under Mr. Duterte “has accrued little to our accumulated advantage in the South China Sea and in the context of Philippine-China relations.” “On the contrary, we may have done very little in stemming the tide of an increasing Chinese footprint into the ASEAN region’s foreign policy, economy and security.”
Mr. Lacson said the country could work with its Southeast Asian neighbors in invoking the 2016 Hague ruling.
“It is wrong to assume that there are only two ways to secure the West Philippine Sea — war or silence,” he said, referring to areas of the sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone. “Between war and timidity, there is the arbitral ruling. Let us stop snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
“The West Philippine Sea belongs to the Filipino people, and the landmark arbitral award affirmed this ownership and gave it a permanent fixture in the international legal system,” Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares said in a statement.
She said much is at stake in the maritime area that is rich in fish, oil, gas and other natural resources. “Thousands of fishermen also rely on the catch area in the sea for their food and livelihood.”
“We stand united with them in asserting our rights to our waters and protecting our territory from invasion and illegal activities,” she added.
Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel urged the Defense department to expedite the building and expansion of facilities in the Spratly Islands.
The agency could work with local government and other agencies, such as the Science and Technology and Agriculture departments, to encourage civilian activity on the island, she said.
“We cannot treat the islands in the West Philippine Sea only as military outposts, but also as civilian territories that are simply part of the Philippines,” she said in a statement. “If the Executive can devise a way that will allow for more activity on the islands, accompanied of course by security protocols, it can contribute to consolidating our sovereignty.”