US slams China’s ‘irresponsible behavior’ in South China Sea

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
US slams China�s �irresponsible behavior� in South China Sea
This handout photo taken on March 23, 2024 and released by the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (PCG/BFAR) on March 25, 2024 shows an aerial view of BRP Datu Pagbuaya as it sails from the Philippine-held Thitu Island sheltered port, in the Spratly Islands, in the disputed South China Sea.
Photo by Handout / Philippine Coast Guard / AFP

MANILA, Philippines — Damage to Philippine vessels and injuries to their crew in the South China Sea constitute “irresponsible behavior” in disregard of international law, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday, weighing in on the latest flare-up involving China.

Manila and Beijing have traded barbs almost daily since Tuesday’s confrontation at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, where ships of the China Coast Guard blasted two Philippine vessels with water cannons, prompting outrage from its government.

“We’ve been very clear to everyone, to include Beijing, that the kind of behavior that we’ve seen, where Filipino crews are put in danger... sailors have been injured and property damaged, that is irresponsible behavior,” Austin told a joint press conference in Hawaii.

Austin reiterated the US would continue to support its former colony the Philippines, as outlined in a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

“Our commitment to the treaty is ironclad and we stand with the Philippines,” he said after a meeting with defense counterparts of the Philippines, Australia and Japan.

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro refused to speculate about the conditions in which Manila might invoke the treaty, saying that would be a “political decision.”

The treaty binds the two countries to defend each other in the event of attack, including in the South China Sea, upping the stakes in a long-running battle for power that has seen China double-down in asserting its territorial claim over most of the waterway, a key global trade route.

Appearing alongside Austin, Teodoro said the treaty allies were committed to building capacity and deterrence to ensure no situation emerged that would require the treaty to be invoked.

“We need to assert our rights, but in a manner that safeguards the safety of each and every member of the Philippines’ armed force,” Teodoro added.

The US lays no claims to the South China Sea, but has deployed Navy ships and fighter jets in what it calls freedom of navigation operations that have challenged China’s claims to virtually the entire waterway. The US says freedom of navigation and overflight in the waters is in America’s national interest.

Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea. Beijing has refused to recognize a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its expansive claims on historical grounds.

The US has warned repeatedly that it is obligated to defend the Philippines – its oldest treaty ally in Asia – if Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under armed attack, including in the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it aims to build what it calls a “latticework” of alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing says the strengthening of US alliances in Asia is aimed at containing China and threatens regional stability.

Defense chiefs vow deeper cooperation

Defense chiefs from the US, Australia, Japan and the Philippines vowed to deepen their cooperation as they gathered on Thursday in Hawaii for their second-ever joint meeting amid concerns about China’s operations in the South China Sea.

The meeting came after the four countries last month held their first joint naval exercises in the South China Sea.

Austin hosted the defense chiefs – composed of Teodoro, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles and Japanese Minister of Defense Kihara Minoru – at the US military’s regional headquarters, US Indo-Pacific Command, at Camp H.M. Smith in the hills above Pearl Harbor.

Defense chiefs from the four nations held their first meeting in Singapore last year. The US has decades-old defense treaties with all three nations.

Austin told reporters at a news conference after their discussion that the drills strengthened the ability of the nations to work together, build bonds among their forces and underscore their shared commitment to international law in the waterway.

Marles said the defense chiefs talked about increasing the tempo of their defense exercises.

Earlier in the day, Austin had separate bilateral meetings with Australia and Japan followed by a trilateral meeting with Australia and Japan.

In a statement, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) said the meeting underscores the deep collaboration among the four nations in advancing a shared vision for a free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

“Expressing grave concern over the situation in the East and South China Seas, the Defense Ministers strongly objected to the dangerous deployment of coast guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea,” the DND said.

“They reiterated serious concerns regarding the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation and the disruption of supply lines to Second Thomas Shoal, which pose dangerous and destabilizing behavior,” it added, referring to Ayungin Shoal where a rusty naval outpost is anchored.

The DND said the defense chiefs of the Philippines, Australia, Japan and the US called upon China “to adhere to the final and legally binding 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal Award and pledged to support states exercising their rights and freedoms in the South China Sea.”

“The leaders discussed enhancing defense cooperation, including maritime activities and capacity building. Through collaborative efforts, the four nations reaffirm their commitment to upholding the rules-based order and ensuring stability in the region.”

Credible defense

Until the Philippines is able to show that it is a force to reckon with and has enough capability and equipment to defend itself, China’s laser-pointing, dangerous maneuvers, ramming, water cannon attacks and other forms of harassment in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) will continue in the coming years.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will need more funding from the national government, through the help of Congress, considering how small the country’s current defense budget is.

“On your question when will this all end, it’s when the AFP has achieved a credible defense posture,” Philippine Navy spokesperson Commander John Percie Alcos told reporters at the ongoing Bagong Pilipinas National Security Cluster Communications Media Workshop organized by the Presidential Communications Office at the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy in San Narciso, Zambales.

According to him, the Philippine Navy has its initial wish list but it will need more considering the AFP’s shift to external defense and how it is moving to extend its operational area to cover the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone in the WPS.

Philippine Navy spokesperson for the WPS Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad said that the government, as well as each and every Filipino, should not look at the country’s defense expenses as a loss.

“We have to look at defense and security not as an expense but as an investment. And you never stop investing for the defense and the security of the country,” he stressed.

During the first day of the communications workshop on Thursday, the AFP said it has a P1.893-trillion budget for Horizon 3 of the AFP Modernization Program, which will be used to acquire cyber systems, subsystems and support systems, air interdiction, surface and subsurface systems, missile and counter missile systems for the next 10 years.

One of the presentations made during the workshop featured the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept that the AFP is now pursuing and implementing to protect the Philippine archipelago.

Despite the challenges, the AFP repeatedly maintains that it will not be deterred and will continue to fight for the country’s sovereign rights and freedom to navigate and fish in its own waters in the WPS.

The military said that it will use all available resources to protect and defend the country’s interest anchored on President Marcos’ declaration that not an inch of Philippine territory will be lost.

Water cannon response

However, amid China’s water cannon attacks on Philippine vessels, Trinidad said fighting water with water or also using water cannons to defend itself like what the Chinese coast guard is doing is not an option for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

“We will lose the moral high ground if we go down to the level of the Chinese and violate international law. Our concern is territorial integrity, national sovereignty and sovereign rights. The concern of other countries is freedom of navigation in the high seas. The rules-based international order must prevail,” Trinidad said.

For his part, Sen. Francis Tolentino yesterday warned that calling on the PCG to use its water cannon against China’s incursions in the WPS “might escalate or elevate into something greater than a water cannon.”

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III proposed the move on Thursday, urging the PCG to deploy its water cannons to protect Philippine vessels from being harassed by the intruding Chinese ships.

But PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela cautioned against the move to retaliate in the same manner, which ran the risk of provoking China into sending more ships.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo again called on Filipinos yesterday to reject the misinformation and manipulation of the WPS issue including the narrative that the matter is about great powers and that the Philippines is just a pawn.

“The South China Sea is shared by many coastal states, and our portion of it is what we call the West Philippine Sea. For far too long, the narrative surrounding the WPS has been obscured by misinformation and manipulation,” he said.

“We should not allow ourselves to be painted as the aggressors or the violators,” he emphasized, adding that the role of the Philippines is “to stand firm,” citing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the arbitral ruling of 2016. — Marc Jayson Cayabyab

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