U.S. says China’s South China Sea escalation undermines rules-based order

By Rene Acosta

The United States called China’s latest action in the South China Sea a threat to peace and security in the region and an affront to international maritime norms, as it reminded Beijing of its existing defense treaty with the Philippines.

The U.S. Department of State made the statement in the aftermath of the attack by two Chinese Coast Guard vessels against two civilian ships chartered to bring supplies to Filipino troops guarding the Second Thomas Shoal in the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) which Beijing is disputing.

“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 U.S. State Department said through its spokesman Ned Price.

The statement issued on Friday November 19, Washington time, was released by the US Embassy in Manila on Friday evening.

The two civilian boats, Unaiza Mae 1 and Unaiza Mae 3, were in the shoal for a resupply mission for soldiers guarding the shoal when the two Chinese ships attacked them with water cannons lasting for at least an hour, according to Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

The soldiers have been guarding the Second Thomas Shoal located 105 nautical miles southwest of the Philippines province of Palawan aboard the partly sunken ship 100-meter long BRP Sierra Madre, which the Philippines is using as a military outpost.

A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the attack which it defended and it insisted on China’s sovereignty over the Second Thomas Shoal.

“On the evening of November 16, two Philippine supply boats trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Jiao of China’s Nansha Qundao without China’s consent,” the statement said.

“Chinese coast guard vessels performed official duties in accordance with law and upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order. At present, the sea area of Ren’ai Jiao is generally tranquil. China and the Philippines are in communication on this.”

China must follow the rule of law

The U.S. told China that it has no legal rights over the shoal as had been declared by the July 12, 2016 ruling of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal which was constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

The ruling, an offshoot of the case brought by the Philippines to challenge China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea, rejected Beijing claims to Second Thomas Shoal and to waters determined to be part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

The U.S. said that China and the Philippines, pursuant to their treaty obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, are legally bound to comply with the decision. “The PRC should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.”

As it took China to task over its latest action, the U.S. reminded the Chinese government of its existing 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, a pact that obligates both the Philippines and the US to aid each other when one of them is attacked.

“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 US State Department said.

“The United States strongly believes that PRC actions asserting its expansive and unlawful South China Sea maritime claims undermine peace and security in the region,” it also said.

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