US Coast Guard stresses 'focus' on maintaining freedom of navigation in disputed waters

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 29 2021 07:31 PM

US Coast Guard stresses 'focus' on maintaining freedom of navigation in disputed waters 1
A Chinese patrol craft tails a fishing vessel with ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano on board in the West Philippine Sea on April 8, 2021. Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - The commandant of the United States Coast Guard has stressed the importance of freely navigating oceans, as well as the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes through international courts, as tensions in the South China Sea continue. 

Speaking to reporters via teleconference from Guam, US Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz called out coercive and antagonistic behavior by certain “regional actors” in the South China Sea.

Schultz also noted the building of islands with military capabilities and defensive systems there.

“We need to focus collectively free and open oceans, whether disputed areas. We should work through the established mechanisms to resolve that," said Schultz. 

"Coercive, antagonistic regional actors that are running down fishing boats in disputed areas, I am not sure that looks like the modern maritime governance, rules-based order the United States Coast Guard would like to champion in the region,” he added.

A UN-backed arbitration court invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea in a ruling in 2016. The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Beijing continues to disregard the ruling as it continued to build islands in the resource-rich waters and allegedly blocked fishermen from the Philippines and other coastal states from accessing it.

He deferred to the Indo-Pacific Command on plans for future actions but noted that future freedom of navigation operations by Coast Guard cutters are “very possible.”

The Philippines, he pointed out, has a “very capable coast guard” but he is looking forward for it to "press a little but further than their littorals” as it continues to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF).

The US Embassy earlier this year said the value of illegally caught fish in Philippine waters is estimated to be at P63 billion a year, as reported recently by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

He said they have a Coast Guard officer helping build the capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard, and that Washington has a ship rider agreement and a “very collaborative, cooperative relationship” with Manila.

The United States, the Philippines' long-time ally, has always been vocal in supporting freedom of navigation in disputed waters as China's aggression mounted. 

Earlier this month, the US repeated its warning to Beijing that an attack on Philippine armed forces in the South China Sea would trigger a 1951 US-Philippines mutual defense treaty.

Manila has filed several protests against Beijing due to its lingering illegal presence in the West Philippine Sea.

Temporarily shelving the award, President Rodrigo Duterte had pursued friendlier ties with China despite its repeated incursions in the country's waters in exchange for investments, infrastructure funding and most recently, vaccine supply. 

Duterte called the arbitral award a mere piece of "paper" that he will throw in the wastebasket.

His sentiments were echoed by China during the commemoration of the 5th year of The Hague ruling this month.

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