US vows to back PH in maritime dispute

The United States has assured the Philippines the mutual defense treaty they signed in 1951 applies to growing concerns in the South China Sea, where China has been aggressively pursuing its claims on disputed islets and reefs.

At sea, Philippines : This handout satellite imagery taken on March 23, 2021 and received on March 25 from Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres (175 nautical miles) west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels gathered near a disputed reef in the South China Sea are “fishing boats” sheltering from poor weather, the foreign ministry said March 22, a day after the Philippines described their presence as an incursion. AFP / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Last Thursday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was on the phone with Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. to discuss the massing of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, which is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone or EEZ.

Emily Horne, spokesman of the US National Security Council, said Sullivan emphasized that the US “stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order.”

Sullivan “reaffirmed the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea,” Horne said in a statement.

Under the 70-year-old treaty, the Philippines and US are bound to support each when either one is attacked by an external force.

The government task force overseeing the West Philippine Sea, chaired by Esperon, recently reported that Chinese ships have massed at the Julian Felipe Reef, a part of the Kalayaan Island Group.

Aside from the Julian Felipe Reef, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-
WPS) said it also spotted Chinese militia vessels at Chigua (Kennan) Reef, Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef.

Chinese presence was also reported in the Panganiban, Kagitingan and Zamora reefs.
The military on Thursday criticized the incursions without directly mentioning China.

Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the structures at the Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks, where Julian Felipe Reef is situated, were “prejudicial” to peace and security in the West Philippine Sea.

Sobejana said navy patrols were dispatched last Tuesday to the Pagkakaisa Banks in the Kalayaan Island Group.

The results of reconnaissance flights over Pagkakaisa have been taken up with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of National Defense, Sobejana said.

“The Laws of the Sea gives the Philippines indisputable and exclusive rights over the area,” he said in a statement. “We assure every Filipino that our efforts to dutifully perform our mandate to protect and advance our national interests in the area continue unhampered.”

The military counted 44 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe, 92 in Chigua and 84 in Gaven.
Although it was not mentioned by Sobejana, the Pagkakaisa Banks include the Johnson South (Mabini) Reef, where China has set up structures years ago.

Satellite images showed that the ships have been at Julian Felipe since November 2020.

Only when the NTF-WPS issued a statement last month noting the large presence of Chinese ships did the military send out planes and ships to patrol the area. Dempsey Reyes