The article was published in Opex360. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.
WASHINGTON, (BM) – When, in 1994, Beijing sent its maritime militia to the vicinity of their owned Mischief Reef, the Philippines deemed it best to do nothing, other than a formal protest, to avoid escalating tensions. Since then, this islet in the Spratley archipelago has come under Chinese control in the South China Sea. And a military base has been built there.
In 2012, the same scenario repeated itself for the Scarborough Reef. This time, Manila decided to take the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration [PCA] in The Hague, which found, in a notice published in July 2016, that the Chinese claims had no legal basis. However, this did not change the situation, Beijing having rejected this verdict, calling it illegal.
China is now eyeing the Philippine Whitsun Reef, also known as “Julian Felipe.” More than 200 “fishing vessels” suspected of belonging to the Chinese maritime militia were spotted there in early March. But here, the Philippine authorities do not intend to let it go. In addition to protesting Beijing [which doesn’t care], they have sent F / A-50 “Golden Eagle” ships and fighter jets into the area.
“The Philippines should act with restraint and not send planes or warships to disrupt the normal activities … of Chinese fishing vessels, which could fuel tensions between the two countries,” an analyst then warned. In the columns of the daily “Global Times,” the military is close to the Chinese Communist Party.
However, Manila does not intend to relinquish its sovereignty over this reef, located 320 km from the Philippine island of Palawan. “The Chinese incursions produce a stain” on relations between the Philippines and China and “may trigger unwanted hostilities that the two countries would prefer to avoid”, in turn, warned Salvador Panelo, one of the president’s principal advisers. Filipino, Rodriguo Duterte. “Our sovereignty is not negotiable,” he even insisted.
In 2019, Chinese ships were spotted near Pag Asa, another island belonging to the Philippines. But, at the time, the United States warned Beijing. “The South China Sea belonging to the Pacific, any armed attack against the Philippine forces, its planes or its vessels in the South China Sea will activate the mutual defense obligations defined by article 4 of our mutual defense treaty”, warned Mike Pompeo. He was then the head of American diplomacy.
With the election of Democrat Joe Biden to the White House, the political alternation in Washington has done nothing to change the line set by the Trump administration. With the difference, no doubt, that the situation concerning Whitsun Reef makes things potentially more “explosive.”
“We share the concerns of our Filipino allies regarding information about a continued gathering of maritime forces from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] near the Whitsun Reef,” said Ned Price, spokesperson for the Department of State, April 7.
Also, he said, echoing almost word for word the statement made two years ago by Mr. Pompeo. “An armed attack on Philippine military forces, ships, or planes in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippine Treaty of Mutual Defense.“
As a reminder, the United States and the Philippines bound by a treaty concluded in 1951, which provides for a mutual defense clause, indicating that a party would come to the aid only in the event of an “armed attack in The pacific “. However, until 2019, it was not confident that this could affect the South China Sea. Hence the clarification provided by Mr. Pompeo, which the Biden administration therefore confirmed.
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