US backs Philippines call for China to respect law of the sea

The move comes as Manila protests the ‘swarming’ of Chinese vessels in South China Sea fishing grounds.
By RFA Staff
2022.12.19
US backs Philippines call for China to respect law of the sea A Chinese Coast Guard ship (left) is seen near a Philippine Coast Guard vessel in Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, March 2, 2022.
Handout /Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) /AFP

UPDATED AT 3:13 p.m. ET ON 12-20-2022

The U.S. has spoken up in support of the Philippines amid China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, which Washington says shows a “continuing disregard” for other claimants.

A U.S. spokesman said in a strongly-worded statement late on Monday that the United States “supports the Philippines’ continued calls upon the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to respect the international law of the sea in the South China Sea, as reflected in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and its legal obligations pursuant to the 2016 arbitral ruling.”

The statement said the reported “escalating swarms” of Chinese vessels in the vicinity of Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands “interfere with the livelihoods of Philippine fishing communities.”

They “also reflect continuing disregard for other South China Sea claimants and states lawfully operating in the region,” the statement said.

Six parties – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan – hold claims over parts of the South China Sea but Beijing’s claim is by far the biggest, at up to 90% of the sea.

From earlier this month, Manila has reported a large number of Chinese vessels “swarming” near Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the part of the South China Sea that the Philippines calls West Philippine Sea.

Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal, although located within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), are also claimed by China which calls them Houteng Jiao and Xianbin Jiao.

Beijing claims that they have been China’s traditional fishing grounds since ancient times and sends ships there on a regular basis.

Late on Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila issued a statement rejecting the State Department's "unfounded accusations," which it said were part of a bid to "stir up troubles and drive a wedge between China and the Philippines."

"Under the strategic guidance of our two heads of state, China and the Philippines have agreed to place South China Sea disputes at a proper place in the bilateral relations and manage them properly through dialogue and consultation," the statement said.

"What the US has done is not to help anyone but to serve its own geopolitical interests ... We urge the US to stop using the South China Sea issue to stir up troubles, sow discord between China and the Philippines and undermine stability in the South China Sea."

Diplomatic protests

Since taking office in June, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has repeatedly stated that his government would assert a 2016 international arbitration court ruling that invalidated all China’s claims in the South China Sea but was rejected by Beijing.

Under him, Manila has ramped up diplomatic protests against Beijing’s frequent incursions in the South China Sea.

Last month, Manila filed a diplomatic protest accusing the China Coast Guard of forcibly confiscating rocket debris salvaged by a Philippine coast guard ship in the Spratlys, just when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was visiting the Philippines.

Observers such as Jay Batongbacal, an international legal expert, said the incident was “about China again trying to demonstrate their power and alleged jurisdiction over the area.”

“It shows their lack of respect and utter disregard for civilized and professional conduct at sea,” Batongbacal told RFA at the time.

The incident occurred near Pag-asa, or Thitu, island that Manila controls and the Philippine Senate filed a resolution on Dec. 14 condemning the Chinese actions.

The U.S. statement on Monday said “we share the Philippines’ concerns regarding the unsafe encounter that the PRC Coast Guard initiated with Philippines naval forces in the South China Sea, as documented before the Senate of the Philippines.”

“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law,” it stated.

The U.S. has a long-standing defense treaty with the Philippines.

The Philippine Department of National Defense, in a statement on Dec. 14, said the swarming of Chinese vessels near Iroquois and Sabina is “unacceptable” and “the President’s directive to the Department is clear - we will not give up a single square inch of Philippine territory.” 

Iroquois Reef sits at the southern end of Reed Bank where the Philippines has service contracts for oil and gas exploration but these activities have been impeded by China.

In the so-called 2019 Reed Bank incident, a Philippine fishing boat anchored at the bank where the Iroquois Reef is located was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel. Manila lodged a diplomatic protest but Beijing dismissed it, calling the incident an "ordinary maritime accident."

After months of protest, China issued a letter of apology to the Philippines but insisted on calling Reed Bank an area of China’s Nansha islands.

This story has been updated to include the statement by the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

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