PH, US tackle 'enhanced cooperation' amid massing of Chinese vessels in WPS

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Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. (L) and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (R)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 9) — The top diplomats of the Philippines and the United States discussed the two countries' alliance as Chinese vessels lingered in the West Philippine Sea despite demands for them to leave.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken talked over the phone on Friday, their departments announced.

"Both sides reaffirmed the importance of working closely to enhance the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States that has stood strong for nearly 70 years, in light of the recent geopolitical developments and challenges in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in the West Philippine Sea," Manila's Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement.

The State Department disclosed more details, saying Locsin and Blinken "expressed their shared concerns" over the massing of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, including Julian Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef, where over 200 Chinese ships were spotted in March. Last week's aerial and maritime patrols showed 44 Chinese vessels were still moored at Julian Felipe Reef, while more than 200 others are in other areas in the Kalayaan Island Group.

China claims the entire KIG, which the Philippines considers part of Palawan province. The Philippines has filed diplomatic protests and demanded that China "promptly withdraw" its vessels from the area.

Ned Price, spokesperson for Blinken, said the US Secretary of State also reiterated calls for Beijing to abide by the 2016 arbitral ruling which already invalidated its sweeping claims to the South China Sea, including areas in the West Philippine Sea.

"Secretary Blinken and Secretary Locsin welcomed enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation on the South China Sea," Price said.

"Secretary Blinken also reaffirmed the applicability of the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty to the South China Sea," he added.

The MDT, signed by Manila and Washington in 1951, states 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.

In February 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte moved to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which complements the MDT, but he has since suspended the abrogation.

Duterte's foreign policy is 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.

The US does not claim any part of the South China Sea but conducts freedom of navigation operations, and calls out Beijing's alleged militarization and expansive territorial claims.

China has repeatedly told the US not to intervene in regional matters while maintaining that the Philippines is its "friendly neighbor."

"Respect regional countries' efforts in resolving differences and maintaining stability on the [South China Sea and] stop driving wedges!" Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lijian Zhao said in a recent statement addressing the US.

Aside from the presence of Chinese vessels in the KIG, the Armed Forces of the Philippines also reported seeing "illegal" man-made structures in the area. It is also investigating ABS-CBN's report that its news crew, onboard a Filipino civilian vessel, was chased down by two missile attack craft of the Chinese Navy just around 90 nautical miles from mainland Palawan, well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.