US warns China on use of force in disputed sea

The United States on Friday (Saturday in Manila) warned China against the use of force in disputed waters as it reaffirmed its view that Beijing’s assertive campaign in the South China Sea was illegal.

The State Department voiced “concern” about new legislation enacted by China that authorizes its coast guard to use weapons against foreign ships that Beijing considers to be unlawfully entering its waters.

The text “strongly implies this law can be used to intimidate the PRC’s maritime neighbors,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

“We remind the PRC and all whose forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime forces act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities,” Price told reporters.

“We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.”

Meanwhile, encounters or incidents that may arise involving Filipino vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone would show the value of Manila’s 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington DC, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said.

The statement followed Price’s statement that Washington is concerned with the enacted Chinese coast guard law, saying it “may escalate ongoing territorial and maritime disputes”.

“Well, we’re not reading it. We’ll just go about our Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters—fishing boats, Coast Guard, Navy boats—as we please until we run up against…whatever. Then we’ll know if Mutual Defense Treaty amounts to a hill o’beans, a cup of ‘em or jackshit,” Locsin said in a tweet. 

Price said that President Joe Biden’s administration was reaffirming a statement on the South China Sea issued in July by then secretary of state Mike Pompeo, known for his hawkish stance against Beijing.

In the statement, Pompeo declared that Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea were “completely unlawful.”

The United States has long rejected China’s sweeping claims in the strategic waterway but Pompeo went further by explicitly backing the positions of Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam rather than staying out of the disputes.

New Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier voiced concern about the Chinese maritime law in a call with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi.

Blinken at the time reaffirmed that the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea — also claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu, and Taiwan — fell under a security treaty that commits the United States and Japan to each other’s defense.

Price, in a press briefing Saturday, said the US joined the Philippines and several other Asian nations in “expressing concern” with Beijing’s coast guard law.

“Language in that law, including text allowing the coast guard to destroy other countries’ economic structures and to use force in defending China’s maritime claims in disputed areas, strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate the PRC’s maritime neighbors,” he said.

Price said the US was “further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea,” which were invalidated by the 2016 arbitral ruling.

Manila earlier said it “strongly opposed any application” of the Chinese measure beyond the limits of Beijing’s maritime entitlements stated under the international law, including the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decision on the South China Sea.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila, on the other hand, said the law “will not take strong measures against any fishermen – before or after the formulation of the law” and would not specifically target any certain country.

Philippine Ambassador to Beijing Jose Santiago Sta. Romana recently noted the Chinese Foreign Ministry also reassured Manila that they would not resort to force in the first instance and that “they will still exercise restraint.”

In a related development, President Rodrigo Duterte will decide on the fate of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the national interest and welfare of Filipinos in mind, Senator Christopher Go said.

Go, former presidential assistant, said whatever decision the President would come up with should be respected.

The VFA with the United States is a deal to allow the presence of military forces in the Philippines for military exercises with local troops and humanitarian missions. An important clause states that US military courts will have jurisdiction over crimes committed by its members as long as they are part of official duties.

Go said Duterte, as chief architect of foreign policy, had the prerogative to make decisions for the country.

“I will respect the decision of the President. The Philippines is a sovereign country. We belong to an independent country,” he said Friday during the groundbreaking ceremony of the Northeastern Misamis General Hospital in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental.

He also assured that Duterte iwas only concerned about the welfare of all Filipinos.

“Whatever decision he makes, it will be for the best interest of Filipinos,” explained Go. “For the President and I, we will not let Filipinos be taken advantage of.”

The President earlier demanded compensation from the US government if it wanted to keep the VFA. He ordered in February last year the abrogation of the 1998 agreement but suspended it due to the pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions.”

The US welcomed the suspension, saying “the US-Philippines alliance remains vital to our robust, deep-rooted bilateral relationship. The United States will continue to partner closely with the Philippines to strengthen our mutual security ties.”

Meanwhile, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, said they respected the wisdom of their commander-in-chief.

“I am a soldier, a good follower. The President is the commander-in-chief and I respect his wisdom,” he said.

Sobejana added the Philippine military should be able to stand alone and not become dependent on other countries.

“As an organization, as the AFP, we should be able to stand alone. If we are so dependent on other countries, we can’t be on top of the situation always,” he said in a statement.

Go believes the termination of the VFA “is a chance for us to write a new and better chapter in Philippines–United States relations. We should now be able to renew our friendship, reaffirm our ties and resume cooperation as true co-equals.” 

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