MANILA, Philippines - The United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) on Thursday reiterated its commitment to protect freedom of navigation and stressed that the territorial row in the West Philippine Sea should be addressed peacefully.
“We would ensure that there is access, (there is) freedom of navigation,” USPACOM commander Adm. Samuel Locklear said in a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
Locklear said the US has been pursuing such freedom globally amid territorial claims by some countries.
“Around the globe there are nations who, according to what we believe are the international norms and what’s laid out in the UN (United Nations) law of the sea convention, (that have excessive maritime claims,” Locklear said.
“The first way you do that is to do it legally and to make sure that the legal community understands that those claims are excessive. Then we continue to make sure that the US military operates in a way that ensures our freedom of navigation where we chose to go.”
Locklear is in the country to attend the meeting of the Mutual Defense Board, which culminated on Thursday. The board consists of military officials from US and the Philippines.
Concerns about the freedom of navigation in the region have been raised due to the supposed aggressive actions of China, which has been perceived as a rival of the US.
China claims virtually the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) while the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
One of China’s actions that raised concerns in the region is its continued presence in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which is well within the Philippine territory.
The shoal is located124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales and is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical miles exclusive economic zone.
China started to occupy the area in April 10 when its surveillance vessels barred the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had poached endangered marine species in the shoal. Latest reports from Philippine authorities said at least three Chinese ships are still in the area.
Another controversial action of China is its supposed plan to interdict ships that enter what it considers its territory in the West Philippine Sea.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the coastal border defense regulation promulgated by Hainan province allows law enforcement over fishing boats that water under its jurisdiction.
The Philippines has asked China to clarify the policy, believing this is “illegal” and “deserves international condemnation.”
In the same press conference, Dellosa said the territorial row in the West Philippine Sea was not the focus of the Mutual Defense Board meeting.
“We focused more our discussion with regard to the activities that will be conducted next year,” he said, referring to the bilateral exercises between the US and Philippine troops.
Locklear, nevertheless, stressed that the territorial dispute in the region should be resolved through peaceful means.
“US is concerned about anything that creates potential disruption to this peaceful security environment. As you know, the US position on these territorial disputes is we don’t take sides but we do have a position that it must be dealt with peacefully, without coercion,” he said.
“There ought to be international forums that are used to be able to resolve this in a peaceful way, that’s the only way ahead, that’s the only way.”
When asked how far the US will extend help to the Philippines when attacked, Locklear said: “I’m not going to speculate on that."
Locklear, nevertheless, said the Mutual Defense Treaty states that the two countries would have to come together and talk about the support they will give to each other if one of them is attacked.
“I will say that we stand by the defense treaty as it is,” he said.
The Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 provides that the US and the Philippines, separately or jointly, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacities to resist armed attacks.