- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 25, 2021

The European Union joined the U.S. in criticizing China’s ongoing maritime provocations toward the Philippines in the South China Sea over the weekend, with Brussels accusing Beijing of making waves that “endanger peace and stability in the region.”

“The EU reiterates its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order,” the bloc said in reference to a biting standoff near the waterway’s vital global shipping routes.

Roughly 200 Chinese vessels have been massed for weeks near an area of the South China Sea known as Whitsun Reef, which is situated within the exclusive economic zone claimed by the Philippines.

With the Chinese ships accused of blocking the Philippines from accessing the reef, Manilla has responded by flying warplanes over the area, triggering fears in Washington of a potential escalation.

Biden administration officials have said they stand by America’s alliance with the Philippines and would regard any attack on any Philippines territory as covered under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the treaty in an early April phone call with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin. During the call, the two “shared concerns with the massing of [People’s Republic of China] maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, including at Whitsun Reef,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement at the time.

Mr. Price said they also “reiterated their calls on the PRC to abide by the 2016 arbitration ruling issued pursuant to the Law of the Sea Convention,” a reference to a ruling by the United Nations-backed body known by the acronym “UNCLOS,” which disputed Chinese sovereignty claims over most of the South China Sea back in 2016.

During his early April call with Mr. Locsin, Mr. Blinken specifically “reaffirmed the applicability of the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty to the South China Sea,” Mr. Price said.

With that as a backdrop, Reuters has reported that the Philippines on Friday protested to China over its failure to withdraw its “threatening” boats believed to be manned by maritime militia around the disputed Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef.

The EU issued its statement Saturday, saying “tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region.”

Chinese officials have sharply denied that Beijing is engaged in a provocation over Whitsun. In early April, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian appeared to tell reporters that the massing of Chinese ships near the reef was normal.

“It is a customary practice running over a thousand years for Chinese fishing boats to work and shelter in relevant waters,” he said. “I don’t know why relevant sides refer to the Chinese fishermen as ‘maritime militia.’ It shows malicious intent driven by ulterior motives.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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