U.S. Recommits to Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty in S. China Sea

USS Benfold transits past the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, July 12 (USN)

Published Jul 12, 2021 3:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling on sovereignty in the South China Sea, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put out a statement of support for Philippine maritime rights in the face of Chinese efforts to "coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states." To emphasize the message, a U.S. Navy destroyer conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, challenging China's claims to straight baselines enclosing the archipelago - and prompting an angry response from Beijing.

"Five years ago, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention delivered a unanimous and enduring decision firmly rejecting the [People's Republic of China's] expansive South China Sea maritime claims as having no basis in international law. The Tribunal stated that the PRC has no lawful claim to . . . the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf," said Blinken in a statement. "The United States reaffirms . . . that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty."

Blinken called for China to abide by UNCLOS, cease its "provocative behavior" and demonstrate a commitment to the "rules-based maritime order." 

Beijing responded to the statement with displeasure. "The US statement disregards the historical merits and objective facts of the South China Sea issue, violates and distorts international law, and breaks the US government's long-held public commitment of not taking a position on the South China Sea sovereignty issue," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a press conference. "What's more, the US abuses bilateral military agreements that smack of the Cold War to threat to use force on China. This exposes its power politics logic and hegemonic practices."

Lijian reiterated Beijing's view that the vast majority of the South China Sea is Chinese, based on its interpretation of China's historical presence in the area. "The award of the arbitration is illegal, null and void. It is nothing more than a piece of waste paper," he said.

He also noted that the U.S. is not a signatory to UNCLOS, and that the U.S. has itself declined to support international court proceedings - notably the proceedings of the International Criminal Court. "The U.S. poses as a defender of international law and keeps referring to the Convention [UNCLOS] and making an issue out of it. Why doesn't it accede to the Convention first?" Lijian said.

Meanwhile, in the Paracel Islands, the destroyer USS Benfold conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) past Chinese-claimed land features. In a statement, the PLA Southern Theater Command said that its forces "drove away" the Benfold; U.S. 7th Fleet responded that this was "false," and that "USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters."

"The PLA(N)’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims," 7th Fleet said. "The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region."