PH ‘open to leveraging’ ties with other countries amid Chinese incursions, says Defense dep’t

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 8) — All options are on the table as Chinese vessels linger in the West Philippine Sea, the country’s Department of National Defense said Thursday.

“As the situation in the West Philippine Sea evolves, we keep all our options open in managing the situation, including leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the United States,” DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said in a statement.

It was in response to the US State Department’s assurance that “an armed attack against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Andolong considers it an “admonition” to China and affirmation of the Philippines-U.S. alliance.

“We are continuously in talks with the U.S. on the matter of mutual defense. Both parties are committed to undertake their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty so that neither stands alone in these issues involving the two states' inherent right of self-defense, individually and collectively,” Andolong also said.

The MDT, signed by Manila and Washington in 1951, states that the two countries will provide military aid to each other in case their metropolitan areas or territories in the Pacific are attacked by a foreign force.

Earlier, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had been in an apparent word war with China, belying its claims that the Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea are fishing vessels, not maritime militia, merely seeking shelter from bad weather. Lorenzana said he is “no fool” to believe this, reiterating the government’s demand for China to “promptly withdraw” its vessels.

The Department of Foreign Affairs first filed a diplomatic protest last March 21. Two weeks later, 44 Chinese vessels remain moored at Julian Felipe Reef. The DFA on Monday again asked the Chinese ships to leave and warned that it will fire off a diplomatic protest "for every day of delay." The DFA announced filing another protest on Wednesday.

The Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef is located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Around 200 Chinese vessels were seen amassing at Julian Felipe Reef in March. As of the latest aerial and maritime patrols, 44 Chinese ships were still at Julian Felipe Reef while over 200 other Chinese vessels were in different areas in the West Philippine Sea.

The US in its latest statement also called on China to finally recognize and abide by the 2016 decision of an arbitral tribunal, which recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to areas within its EEZ that Beijing contests.

Aside from the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the European Union have weighed in on increased Chinese presence in the West Philippine Sea, calling on China to refrain from actions that raise tensions in contested waters. Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, including areas Manila considers as part of the West Philippine Sea, despite an arbitral ruling striking down its nine-dash line historical claim.

Early in his term, President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to set the ruling aside to pursue other areas of cooperation, but he again raised the landmark decision with China's Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian due to the deployment of Chinese vessels, according to the Palace.

Lawmakers and maritime experts say the Philippines should band together with other countries to rally international pressure against China.

Duterte's foreign policy was seen as a pivot toward China and away from traditional allies like the US, although his administration calls it an independent “friend to all, enemy to none” policy. Last year, Duterte moved to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which complements the MDT, only to repeatedly suspend its abrogation.

CNN Philippines' David Santos contributed to this report.