US backs Philippine call for China to respect law of the sea

BenarNews staff
US backs Philippine call for China to respect law of the sea A Philippine Coast Guard crew member (right) monitors a Chinese Coast Guard ship shadowing their vessel during a maritime patrol in Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, March 2, 2022.
Handout/Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)/AFP

The United States has spoken up in support of the Philippines amid China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, with Washington saying this shows a “continuing disregard” for other claimants in the strategic waterway.

In a strongly worded statement issued on Tuesday morning (Manila time), the U.S. State Department said “the reported escalating swarms” of Chinese vessels in the vicinity of Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands “interfere with the livelihoods of Philippine fishing communities.”

The United States “supports the Philippines’ continued calls upon the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to respect the international law of the sea in the South China Sea, as reflected in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and its legal obligations pursuant to the 2016 arbitral ruling,” a department spokesperson said.

The swarming by PRC boats  “also reflect continuing disregard for other South China Sea claimants and states lawfully operating in the region,” the statement said.

On Tuesday in Manila, the Chinese Embassy shot back at the American statement and said it contained “unfounded accusations against China that attempt to … drive a wedge between China and the Philippines.”

“The Chinese and Philippine peoples have the will and capability to properly handle maritime disputes through friendly consultation, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” the embassy went on to say.

“We urge the U.S. to stop using the South China Sea issue to stir up troubles, sow discord between China and the Philippines and undermine stability in the South China Sea.”

Six parties – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan – hold claims over parts of the South China Sea but Beijing’s claim is by far the biggest, at up to 90% of the sea.

From earlier this month, Manila has reported a large number of Chinese vessels “swarming” near Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the part of the South China Sea that the Philippines calls West Philippine Sea.

Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal, although located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), are also claimed by China, which calls them Houteng Jiao and Xianbin Jiao.

Beijing claims they have been China’s traditional fishing grounds since ancient times, and sends ships there on a regular basis.

Diplomatic protests

Since taking office in June, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has repeatedly stated that his government would assert a 2016 international arbitration court ruling that invalidated all China’s claims in the South China Sea but was rejected by Beijing.

Under his administration so far, Manila has ramped up diplomatic protests against Beijing’s frequent incursions in the South China Sea.

Last month, Manila filed a diplomatic protest accusing the China Coast Guard of forcibly confiscating debris from a space rocket salvaged by a Philippine coast guard ship in the Spratlys, just when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was visiting the Philippines.

Observers such as Jay Batongbacal, an international legal expert, said the incident was “about China again trying to demonstrate their power and alleged jurisdiction over the area.”

“It shows their lack of respect and utter disregard for civilized and professional conduct at sea,” Batongbacal told Radio Free Asia (RFA) at the time.

The incident occurred near Pag-asa (Thitu), an island that Manila controls. That led the Philippine Senate to file a resolution on Dec. 14 condemning the alleged Chinese actions.

The U.S. State Department statement alluded to that incident by saying “we share the Philippines’ concerns regarding the unsafe encounter that the PRC Coast Guard initiated with Philippines naval forces in the South China Sea, as documented before the Senate of the Philippines.”

“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law,” it stated.

The U.S. has a long-standing Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.

The Philippine Department of National Defense, in a statement last week, said the swarming of Chinese vessels near Iroquois and Sabina was “unacceptable” and “the President’s directive to the Department is clear  – we will not give up a single square inch of Philippine territory.”

Philippine officials did not immediately respond Tuesday to the statement from Washington. 

Iroquois Reef sits at the southern end of Reed Bank where the Philippines has service contracts for oil and gas exploration but China has impeded such activities.

In the so-called 2019 Reed Bank incident, a Chinese boat rammed into and sunk a Philippine fishing boat anchored at the bank where the Iroquois Reef.

Manila lodged a diplomatic protest but Beijing dismissed it, calling the incident an “ordinary maritime accident.”

After months of protest, China issued a letter of apology to the Philippines but insisted on calling Reed Bank an area of China’s Nansha Islands.

Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.


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