US reaffirms commitment to Mutual Defense Treaty with Philippines

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
US reaffirms commitment to Mutual Defense Treaty with Philippines
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses reporters during his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 27, 2021.
Carlos Barria / Pool / AFP

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 4:02 p.m.) — Shortly after the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest over a new Chinese law that may put Filipino fishers in danger, the US on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty and its rejection of Beijing's excessive claims in the South China Sea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a phone call with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., "stressed the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations," the US state department said in a press release.

The department added that Blinken noted the treaty's "clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea."

"Secretary Blinken 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," the agency said.

Beijing has long refused to acknowledge an arbitral ruling that junks its claims over the resource-rich West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.

This development comes amid China's recent passing of a law that allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels. After saying the law was "none of our business," Locsin on Wednesday said he filed a diplomatic protest "after reflection." Blinken, the US State Department said, "pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of [China's] pressure."

Palace: Diplomatic protest consistent with 'independent foreign policy'

Malacañang, which previously said no diplomatic action would be taken against the Chinese law, changed its tune on Thursday.

"We welcome the diplomatic protest, of course, of the DFA," presidential spokesman Harry Roque said during a virtual briefing. "[T]his will prove that the Philippines is fully committed to the rule of law and will assert all its rights available under existing principles of international law to defend its interests."

"This is consistent with our position that while states can enact laws as part of their sovereignty, they must do so in compliance with the UN Charter, prohibiting the use of force unless by way of self-defense or when authorized by the security council."

Roque, however, refused to condemn the alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen by the Chinese coast guard on Pag-asa Island.

Asked if the Palace would order intensified patrols in the contested waters, he reiterated the country's "independent foreign policy" which seeks "to be friends with everyone [and] enemies with no one."

"We will protect and secure the Philippine national interest," Roque assured but said the Palace would leave further details to the DFA, the Department of National Defense, and the Philippine Coast Guard.

Lacson: Fresh affirmation of Mutual Defense Treaty to maintain 'balance of power' 

Sen. Ping Lacson, who chairs the Senate's Committee on National Defense and Security, lauded the reaffirmation of the treaty, calling it an "untapped weapon in our arsenal."

"I certainly hope we do not draw that weapon," he said on Twitter. "Meantime, we might as well keep it there."

In a press release, he added that the US' commitment to the decades-old treaty would help maintain "the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific — including in the South China Sea."

The status of another treaty with the US, however, is still up in the air.

President Rodrigo Duterte originally expressed his intent to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement in February 2020 but ordered its extension in June and again in November.

If Duterte chooses not to order another extension, the agreement's termination will take effect on Aug. 9, 2021. — with a report from Patricia Viray

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