PH options open; US warns China

The Defense department said Thursday it was keeping “all our options open” as Washington warned Beijing against increasing aggressive moves in the region amid the presence of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef – part of the country’s exclusive economic zone – and other parts of the West Philippine Sea.

A photo from Philippine authorities shows Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef)  in March 2021 amid rising tensions. AFP

“As the situation (in the South China Sea) evolves, we keep all our options open in managing the situation, including leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the United States,” Defense spokesman Arsenio Andolong said Thursday.

The United States earlier reminded China of Washington’s obligations to its treaty partners.

“An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

“We share the concerns of our Philippine allies regarding the continued reported massing of PRC maritime militia near the Whitsun Reef,” Price said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

At the same time, Washington called on Beijing to abide by the 2016 arbitral tribunal award, as it reiterated its “strong support” for the Philippines.

Andolong said this proved the strength of the alliance and mutual commitment of the Philippines and the US to promote the rules-based international order.

“The US admonition to China against the use of force on Philippine public vessels and aircraft, which are performing their constitutional mandate to protect and defend Philippine rights in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, is an additional affirmation of the long-standing partnership between our two countries,” Andolong said.

“Both parties are committed to undertake their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty so that neither stands alone in these issues involving the two states’ inherent right of self-defense, individually and collectively. We remain committed to protecting and defending our national interests while upholding the security and stability in the region through a peaceful and rules-based approach,” he added.

More than 200 Chinese boats were first spotted on March 7 at Julian Felipe Reef.

China, which claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea, has refused weeks of appeals by the Philippines to withdraw the vessels, which Manila says unlawfully entered its exclusive economic zone.

The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier promised a barrage of diplomatic protests against China for “every day of delay” in withdrawing their ships from Julian Felipe Reef.

Earlier, the Chinese Foreign Ministry disclosed that its 44 vessels would not permanently stay at the Julian Felipe Reef as it dismissed Philippines’ “negative influence” on the matter.

“I believe I’ve just made it very clear. China has no such plan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in his daily briefing on April 6, Tuesday after a reporter asked if the Chinese vessels would maintain a permanent presence at the Julian Felipe Reef.

The spokesperson also denied claims that the vessels were manned by maritime militia, saying it showed “malicious intent.”

“It is a customary practice running over a thousand years for Chinese fishing boats to work and shelter in relevant waters. I don’t know why relevant sides refer to the Chinese fishermen as ‘maritime militia.’ It shows malicious intent driven by ulterior motives,” he said.

“It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter during rough sea conditions,” Lijian added. AFP

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier rejected China’s claims that the boats parked at Julian Felipe Reef had been seeking shelter from bad weather.

“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there,” Lorenzana said. “Get out of there.”

Lijian also said China did not honor the 2016 international arbitral ruling, which favored Manila’s claim over the West Philippine Sea, adding that the Reef or Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Islands.

“The Tribunal’s Award in the ‘South China Sea Arbitration’ is illegal, null and void. China neither accepts nor recognizes the award, and we firmly oppose any claims or actions based on the award,” he said.

With this, China asked the Philippines to look at the issue “objectively” without giving negative reactions that would affect their bilateral relations.

In related developments, China sent more fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense zone Wednesday in a stepped-up show of force around the island Beijing claims as its own, and Taiwan’s foreign minister said it would fight to the end if China attacks.

The democratic self-governed island has complained of repeated military activities by Beijing in recent months, with China’s air force making almost daily forays in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the United States was concerned about the risk of conflict.

“From my limited understanding of American decision makers watching developments in this region, they clearly see the danger of the possibility of China launching an attack against Taiwan,” he told reporters at his ministry.

“We are willing to defend ourselves without any questions and we will fight the war if we need to fight the war. And if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day we will defend ourselves to the very last day.”

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