US, Aussie leaders hit ‘dangerous’ China moves vs PH sea operations
US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have called out Beijing for its “destabilizing actions” in the South China Sea and its most recent harassment of Filipino ships, which the former described as “unlawful and dangerous.”
Biden also warned that any attack on the Philippines would trigger its 1951 mutual defense agreement with Washington.
In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, he and Albanese stressed that all states must be able to exercise their rights and freedoms, including freedom of navigation and overflight, in a manner consistent with international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We strongly oppose destabilizing actions in the South China Sea, such as unsafe encounters at sea and in the air, the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, including to interfere with routine Philippine maritime operations around Second Thomas Shoal, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation,” both leaders said.
They also noted that the 2016 Arbitral Award which had invalidated Beijing’s claim to almost the whole South China Sea was final and legally binding as they expressed concern about “China’s excessive maritime claims that [were] inconsistent with international law, as well as unilateral actions that may raise tensions and increase the risk of miscalculation in the region.”
“We resolve to work with partners to support regional maritime security and uphold international law,” Biden and Albanese said.
‘Competition, not conflict’
At a joint press conference on the same day, Biden said that the United States was in “competition, not conflict” with China, although he took a tough stance on recent collisions between Chinese and Filipino vessels in the South China Sea.
“Just this past week, the [People’s Republic of China] vessels acted dangerously and unlawfully as our Philippine friends conducted a routine resupply mission within their own exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea,” Biden told reporters.
“I want to be clear: The United States’ defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad. Any attack on the Filipino aircraft, vessels or armed forces will invoke our Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines,” he said.
The United States and the Philippines recently agreed on new guidelines for the treaty. The guidelines now specifically mention that mutual defense commitments would be invoked in case of an armed attack on either country “anywhere in the South China Sea.”
Oct. 22 incident
On Oct. 22, a China Coast Guard vessel hit a Filipino boat bringing supplies to troops stationed on BRP Sierra Madre, which serves as the country’s military outpost on Ayungin Shoal. This was followed by another collision between a Chinese maritime militia vessel and a Philippine Coast Guard ship escorting the resupply boat.
The incident was just the latest act of harassment by Beijing which has repeatedly called on the Philippine government to remove the World War II ship from the area which it considers its territory.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), on the other hand, has repeatedly called out the United States for using the MDT to “threaten” Beijing and increase tensions in the South China Sea (See related story on this page).
“The US has been blatantly emboldening the Philippines’ acts of infringing upon China’s sovereignty and inciting and supporting the Philippines’ attempts to repair and reinforce its warship that was deliberately ‘grounded’ on Ren’ai Jiao,” MFA spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press briefing in Beijing on Monday, referring to Ayungin Shoal.
Albanese’s state visit to Washington underscored the importance placed by the United States on its longtime ally, Australia, as a cornerstone of its strategy against an increasingly assertive Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region.
“A great deal of the history of our world will be written in the Indo-Pacific in the coming years,” Biden said, using the allies’ term for the region. “Australia and the United States must write that story together.”
China’s rise, however, remains a long-term concern for both countries, even as they seek something of a reset with Beijing.
Albanese will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in early November, while Biden may meet Xi at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco later in the same month.
Both the United States and Australia have conducted several bilateral and multilateral naval exercises with Manila in the South China Sea, close to the coast of Palawan province and not farther out where Chinese maritime militia ships conduct patrols.
The other day, four lawmakers from the US House of Representatives condemned Beijing for “intentionally hitting” Philippine vessels as part of its “aggressive and provocative behavior” in the South China Sea.
House foreign affairs committee chair Rep. Michael McCaul, ranking member Rep. Gregory Meeks, House Indo-Pacific subcommittee chair Rep. Young Kim and ranking member Rep. Ami Bera also expressed their “unequivocal support” for the Philippines with regard to its maritime conflict with China.