Ex-admiral says US should defend Panatag
WASHINGTON—The United States should be willing to use military force to oppose Chinese aggression at a disputed reef off the coast of the Philippines, a former commander of US forces in the Pacific told a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
Dennis Blair made the recommendation to a Senate panel, a day after an international tribunal invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
The objective was not to pick a fight with China at the disputed Panatag Shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal, but to set a limit on its military coercion, Blair said.
Ambiguous defense treaty
“I think we need to have some specific lines and then encourage China to compromise on some of its objectives,” he told the hearing.
The Philippines is a US ally, but their treaty is ambiguous about whether the United States would come to its defense in disputed territory.
Panatag Shoal is located 210 kilometers off the coast of Zambales province on the main Philippine island of Luzon, well within Manila’s 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in waters the Filipinos call West Philippine Sea.
China seized Panatag Shoal in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard, forcing Manila to bring the law of the sea case against Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Manila asked the court to void Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea and demanded respect for its right to explore resources within its EEZ.
Beijing refused to participate in the proceedings, saying it had historic rights to the South China Sea, that it did not recognize the court, and it would not abide by its ruling.
The tribunal found for the Philippines, and ruled on Tuesday that China had no historic rights to the sea and it violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by building artificial islands and barring Manila from exploring resources and Filipino fishermen from fishing in the West Philippine Sea.
China has rejected the tribunal’s ruling. On Wednesday, it warned other countries against threatening its security in the South China Sea.
Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said Beijing could declare an air defense identification zone over the waters if it felt threatened.
China, however, also extended an olive branch to the new administration in the Philippines, saying the Southeast Asian nation would benefit from cooperating with China.
Blair, also a former director of national intelligence, said China has alienated its neighbors through its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, including its reclamation of land and construction of airstrips and ports in the Spratly archipelago.
He advised a careful US approach following the tribunal ruling to give Beijing opportunity to change course.
Kurt Campbell, the former top US diplomat for East Asia and now an adviser on Asia policy for the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, said, “I think over time China will start to adjust its position because they will realize it’s not in their best strategic interests.”
US support for talks
US President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, said the United States would support China-Philippines negotiations that were free from “coercion and undue pressure.”
Kim was speaking at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday before the same Senate subcommittee on Asia.
US officials have said occupation or militarization of Panatag Shoal by China would be very dangerous and destabilizing.
But they have declined to say whether it would invoke the US-Philippines defense treaty, which calls for the allies to help defend each other if there is an armed attack on their armed forces, public vessels, aircraft or island territories under their jurisdiction in the Pacific. AP
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