MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines and the United States once again stand together to condemn China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea that go against a 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, flexing the two countries’ defense pact.
According to a readout from the US Department of Defense released late Monday evening (Philippine time), US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and Department of National Defense Carlito Galvez Jr. discussed programs to strengthen the alliance in a call.
“The two leaders condemned the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) gray-zone activities, which interfere with the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and the rights of other claimant states that seek to operate lawfully in the South China Sea consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling,” it said.
Austin put emphasis on the US’ commitment to the Philippines, pointing again to the Mutual Defense Treaty that states it will come to the Philippines’ defense in case of armed attacks, including anywhere in the South China Sea.
In recent months, multiple high-level Washington officials, including Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris have visited Manila as the US began seeking warmer ties with its oldest treaty ally in Southeast Asia after “rocky times“.
”US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson recently penned a commentary where she noted that the US’ relationship with the Philippines is “a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.
China’s gray-zone activities
The two defense chiefs also discussed “with particular concern” the swarming of over Chinese vessels that included a People’s Liberation Army navy ship around Thitu Island, within 12 nautical miles of the Philippines’ territory, earlier this month.
“The swarming of vessels falls on the heels of a dangerous incident last month, in which the PRC Coast Guard directed a military-grade laser against a Philippine vessel operating lawfully around Second Thomas Shoal, temporarily blinding some of the crew,” the readout said.
The Philippine Coast Guard flew journalists over the Spratly islands in March 10, where a radio operator aboard a Chinese Coast Guard vessel warned them to “leave immediately.”
The PCG was warned while they were flying over the Chinese reef, which according to the Chinese Coast Guard, “constituted a security threat.”
The Philippine pilot responded that they were flying within his country’s territory.
Galvez and Austin also talked about the plans to conduct combined maritime activities and other avenues of cooperation in the South China Sea. The two defense chiefs said they will review possibilities during the upcoming 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.
The call comes after Philippine and US officials broke ground for the rehabilitation of Basa Airbase Runway in Pampanga.
The project is among the approved 15 under Manila and Washington’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which gives US forces access to nine bases in the Philippines to store defense equipment and supplies for any humanitarian relief efforts.
Galvez and Austin also welcomed the coming engagements between the two countries’ armed forces. This includes the “largest iteration” of the Balikatan Exercise next month, where over 17,600 troops will participate.
Majority or 12,000 of whom are American troops, 111 Australians, and 5,000 Philippines soldiers will partake in the exercise.