The State Department on Friday warned China that it risks military action from the United States in response to Chinese coast guard efforts to block the resupply of a Philippines island outpost.
The department said in a statement that the Chinese coast guard operation Tuesday blocking Philippine resupply ships and using water cannons at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea could trigger the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty.
“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” the statement said. “The United States strongly believes that [China‘s] actions asserting its expansive and unlawful South China Sea maritime claims undermine peace and security in the region.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana by phone on Friday to discuss the standoff, saying the U.S. would “stand with our Philippine allies.”
“Secretary Austin reaffirmed the strong U.S. commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “They agreed on the vital importance of peace and stability in the South China Sea and pledged to stay in close contact in the coming days.”
China has been militarily encroaching on the entire South China Sea since 2012. At that time, Chinese maritime vessels took control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the Spratlys, but the Obama administration took no action to support the Philippines, despite the mutual defense pact.
In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed the approach by announcing that any Chinese military action against Philippines‘ interests in the Spratly would invoke the defense treaty.
The shoal at issue is the location of a grounded Philippines ship that has been used as an island base for several years. The ship is dependent on supplies from the Philippines navy and China for the first time has tried to block the shipments in an escalation of its disputed maritime claims in the region.
China has asserted ownership of some 90% of the South China Sea under vague historical claims –- claims rejected by an international tribunal several years ago as an unlawful encroachment on an international waterway.
“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability, escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order,” the State Department said.
The statement noted that an arbitration panel created under the 1983 Law of the Sea Convention issued a “unanimous and enduring decision” that rejected Beijing’s claims to Second Thomas Shoal and concluded that waters around the shoal were part of Manila’s exclusive economic zone.
“The PRC and the Philippines, pursuant to their treaty obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, are legally bound to comply with this decision,” the statement said.
“The PRC should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines‘ exclusive economic zone,” the statement said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.