MANILA— The Philippines and the United States have reiterated that the 2016 ruling of a UN-backed arbitration court that invalidated China’s expansive claims in the resource-rich South China Sea is legally binding to both Manila and Beijing.
In their joint statement signed at the conclusion of their 2-day 9th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, the Philippines and US also reiterated that China’s “expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea are inconsistent with the international law of the sea” as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and with the Arbitral Award.
They said that China cannot “lawfully assert a maritime claim,” including any exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims derived from Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands in areas that the arbitral tribunal had “found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf.”
The two countries' joint statement said "the unanimous July 12, 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration... [is] a decision that, pursuant to the Convention, is legally binding on the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China."
China, which lays claim to most of the waters within its so-called controversial 9-dash line, kept on maintaining its position on the disputed waters and rejected the ruling.
The foreign affairs department has since filed over 200 diplomatic protests for China's incursions in Philippine waters.
The South China Sea is also contested by other Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
In May, President Rodrigo Duterte described the arbitral ruling as a mere piece of paper that belongs to the trash bin for supposedly leading to nothing.
Before this, Duterte had already told the United Nations that the Philippines "rejects attempts to undermine" the arbitral ruling.
The two countries also described China’s reported harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas as “unlawful, as are any unilateral... actions to exploit those resources.”
“The United States and the Philippines express their support for compliance with the international law of the sea and are continuing activities and cooperation to exercise and support safety and freedoms of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea in the South China Sea and around the world,” the statement read.
“Towards this end, we decided to launch a maritime dialogue in 2022.”
MUTUAL DEFENSE TREATY
The US, both in the meeting and joint statement, “unequivocally” affirmed the Arbitral Award and the application of the Mutual Defense Treaty on an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea.
Describing the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) as a “key pillar” in bilateral defense and security relations, enhanced by the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the two countries reaffirmed their treaty commitments.
This included obligations for mutual defense in case of armed attack in the Pacific Area.
“As we celebrate 70 years of the alliance, we reaffirm our treaty commitments, including our MDT Article IV obligations to respond to an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either the United States or the Philippines. The Philippines welcomes the United States' position in its July 13, 2020 statement that the Pacific Area includes the South China Sea,” it read, vowing to “enhance the posture” of the alliance by addressing “new and emerging challenges.”
“We intend to ensure the MDT’s continued relevance to addressing current and emerging threats,” the two countries said.
The joint statement was signed by Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez and Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna for the Philippine government, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner for the US government, as co-chairs of the 9th strategic talks.
STRATEGIC POLICY GUIDE
Aside from the joint statement, both sides also signed the Strategic Policy Guidance to the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board.
“The Philippines and the United States must work together to address current realities and challenges. Frank exchanges and regular interactions between both sides must be sustained,” Romualdez said.
“You have our word and our commitment,” Kritenbrink was quoted by the DFA as saying.
Kritenbrink said this as he reiterated his government's policy on China’s maritime claims as first enunciated by former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in July 2020.
FROM OUR ARCHIVES
Both countries also committed to enhance the defense capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and promote interoperability of the US and Philippine militaries.
This will supposedly be done by conducting regular high-level visits and dialogues, training, establishing a coordination center “to improve bilateral information sharing and planning,” developing joint command and control capability for operations, and completing a bilateral maritime framework for a more comprehensive and timely execution of activities.
“We remain intent on enhancing the defense capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines more so given the prevailing geopolitical tensions, especially in the maritime areas of the Philippines, and plan to pursue avenues," the statement read.
"[This includes] funding arrangements, towards this end, demonstrating our mutual, unshakeable commitment to the alliance, assuring each other that it is strong as it can be, and will remain so for many decades to come,” it added.
Meanwhile, the Philippines thanked the United States “for its leadership role” in providing vaccines for COVID-19, being the largest contributor to the vaccine-sharing platform COVAX facility.
The superpower has donated millions of virus jabs to the Philippines through the UN-led facility, paving the way for the government's expanded vaccination program.
The two countries also agreed to “identify areas for broader engagement in the economic sphere to help pave the way for swift recovery.”
“We acknowledge that a steady and equitable supply of COVID-19 vaccines as well as boosters will be crucial in this regard. The Philippines thus welcomes the United States’ support for the Philippines’ complementary efforts to develop domestic vaccine, therapeutics, and diagnostics manufacturing capabilities."
US officials were at the receiving end of Duterte’s tirades at the start of his presidential term in 2016 when he was slammed for disregarding human rights in his controversial drug war. His stance towards the US has since been vacillating, at one point ordering the abrogation of the VFA only to fully reinstate it later.
The United States is the oldest security ally of the Philippines, with a wide-ranging security partnership that includes assistance to support Philippine efforts towards enhancing its defense capabilities.
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