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EU, MORE NATIONS BACK PHL ON SEA ROW WITH CHINA; US, UK, Japan, others alarmed as Chinese ships still swarm in PHL Sea

Editor in Chief and Managing Editor
WASHINGTON/MANILA – The United States has expressed its concern over what it called China’s “coercive and risky operational behavior” in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea, including the Ayungin Shoal within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III aired his concern on China’s aggressiveness in a call from Washington DC to the Philippines’ Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. as he renewed assurances of support to the Philippines.
Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the US Department of State, in a statement marking the seventh anniversary of the arbitration ruling that upheld the Philippines’ EEZ over China’s claims in the South China Sea, said the US also urged China to “halt its disruption to states’ sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage natural resources; and end its interference with the freedoms of navigation and overflight of states lawfully operating in the region.”
“The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020, policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea,” Miller said. The European Union (EU) and its 16 member states, meanwhile, renewed support to the arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claims over South China Sea, describing it in a statement as “legally binding upon the parties and is useful to resolve disputes between the parties.”

US Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson, in a separate statement, described China’s behavior as “irresponsible” and threatens the security and legal rights of the Philippines.

“We call on the PRC to comply with international law, including implementing the legally binding 2016 award in the Philippines v. China Law of the Sea Convention arbitration as a starting point to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Carlson said.
Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Hae Kyong Yu, at the same time, Australia is reaffirming its support to the arbitral ruling.

British Ambassador Laure Beaufils said what happens in the South China Sea also matters to the UK as freedom of navigation and overflight are essential to its security and prosperity and a cornerstone of international maritime law.

Indian Ambassador Shambu Kumaran said all countries have an obligation to respect international law and that the ruling of the arbitral tribunal on the case against China by the Philippines must be respected.

This as the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command (Wescom) expressed alarm as two Chinese Navy warships, a number of Chinese Coast Guard vessels and 48 Chinese fishing vessels (CFVs) have been spotted swarming the Sabina Shoal and Iroquois Reef, which is located south of the oil and gas-rich Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).”

United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan, meanwhile, expressed support to the Philippines on its row with China in West Philippine Sea and South  China Sea.

At the same time, the European Union and more than a dozen other countries have renewed support for the 2016 Arbitral Ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea and supported the Philippines.

The EU Delegation in Manila and several countries issued a statement issued on July 11, the eve of the decision’s seventh anniversary, encouraging parties to see the decision as a potential basis for peaceful dispute resolution on the sea lane.

Joining the EU Delegation were the embassies of Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden.

 “The Award of the Arbitral Tribunal is a significant milestone, which is legally binding upon the parties to those proceedings, and a useful basis for peacefully resolving disputes between the parties,” the group of nations stated.

“The EU reiterates the fundamental importance of upholding the freedoms, rights and duties established in UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), in particular the freedoms of navigation and overflight,” it added.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) issued its decision on July 12, 2016 and ruled that China’s claim of historic rights to resources within its so-called nine-dash line had no basis in law.

The decision, which upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), serves as the “twin anchors” of the Philippines’ policy and actions over the West Philippine Sea, the parts of the South China Sea that are included in the Philippines’ EEZ which is 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its nearest baseline based on the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS).

The Philippine Coast Guard vowed to intensify patrols in the West  Philippine Sea to “drive away” suspected Chinese maritime militia vessels spotted within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Secretary Austin III  reiterated Washington D.C.’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines in the vital sea lane.

“Secretary Austin noted with concern the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) recent coercive and risky operational behavior directed against Philippine vessels operating safely and lawfully in the South China Sea, including around Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin),” the Pentagon said in a readout.

Austin, it said, highlighted the United States’ “ironclad alliance commitment with the Philippines and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces—to include those of its Coast Guard—in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea.”

Other developments:

1.   Japan’s Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa said: “Japan strongly hopes that the parties’ compliance with the award will lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.” Hayashi  renewed Tokyo’s objections to maritime claims in the waters that are inconsistent with UNCLOS and “remains concerned about the current situation.”

2.   The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said substantial gains in internal security operations (ISO) against the New People’s Army (NPA) and other local terrorist groups have allowed it to increase its presence to 90 percent in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea.

The Japanese Embassy in Manila earlier expressed concern over China’s “dangerous behavior” in the South China Sea, days after the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) blocked Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels en route to Ayungin Shoal.

“[C]hina’s unilateral actions such as repeated intrusions into Japan’s waters around the Senkaku Islands in the ECS (East China Sea), China’s dangerous behavior in the South China Sea in defiance of the 2016 arbitration award is a grave concern for regional peace and stability,” Japanese Ambassador to Manila Kazuhiko Koshikawa said.

The AFP raised concerns over the growing number of Chinese fishing vessels spotted in the disputed West Philippine Sea, with the latest swarming seen as a “threat” to oil and gas-rich Recto Bank’s security.

Describing it as “a concerning development,” the AFP reported  that pilots aboard NV312—a Britten Norman Islander light patrol aircraft of the Philippine Navy—saw an “alarming presence” of Chinese vessels during their latest air patrol on June 30.

The increase in AFP’s presence in the area allowed the monitoring of sea lines of communications (SLOCs) that are complemented by the AFP’s littoral monitoring stations/detachments (LMS/LMDs) to detect and monitor foreign ships, track, and subject them to interdiction operations.

The AFP also added that a redeployment of naval special operations units and the Philippine Marines was done with Marine Battalion Landing Team 9’s transfer to Palawan last month.

As this developed, the second iteration of the Cope Thunder (CT) exercise between the Philippine Air Force (PAF) and the United States’ Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) formally opened at Clark Air Base in Pampanga, with the drills focusing on interoperability between the two services.

The PACAF is a major command of the US Air Force based at the Hickam Air Force Base portion of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. It is also the air component command of the United States Indo-Pacific Command.

Earlier, Philippine and US Marine Corps troops opened in San Antonio, Zambales this year’s Marine Aviation Support Activity (MASA) which will be until July 21.

The Philippine Coast Guard earlier reported that some Chinese Coast Guard vessels had “constantly followed, harassed, and obstructed” its ships when it undertook a naval operation with the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command last June 30 off Ayungin.

In the report, it said two People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels were also sighted near the shoal.
In their talks, Defense Secretaries Austin and Teodoro discussed opportunities to partner with like-minded nations such as Japan and Australia to further ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Austin and Teodoro also agreed to meet in person for in-depth discussions on defense and security priorities.

The Pentagon said both officials look forward to expeditiously conclude a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap, which will advance shared defense modernization goals over the next five years, as well as a General Security of Information Agreement to enable future transfers of advanced and interoperable US technology.

“Their discussion reaffirmed the United States and the Philippines’ enduring commitment to standing shoulder-to-shoulder as allies to bring greater security, prosperity, and stability to the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” the Pentagon said.

The Department of National Defense said the phone call between Teodoro and Austin reaffirmed the “ironclad” alliance between the Philippines and the US.

“After congratulating Secretary Teodoro on his recent appointment as the Philippines’ defense chief, US Secretary Austin emphasized the US’ commitment to working with the Philippines in modernizing the alliance as close partners in the Indo-Pacific region. It was underscored that much progress has been made between the two defense establishments within a short period of time,” DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said in a statement.

And with the recent establishment of the Bilateral Defense Guidelines, Teodoro reaffirmed the DND’s commitment to sustaining dialogue platforms and bilateral mechanisms with the view of enhancing interoperability not only at the level of the armed forces but to include between the two defense departments.

“Secretary Austin re-echoed previous statements of the US that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to public vessels to include aircraft and the coast guards anywhere in the South China Sea. Secretary Teodoro welcomed the US’ commitments and looked forward to working with US counterparts on ongoing bilateral initiatives as well as pursuing other areas of cooperation,” Andolong said.

Both sides also committed to working together on the proposed General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap, joint patrols, and working with other regional partners, as well as other concrete initiatives.

“Secretary Teodoro welcomed more regular interactions with Secretary Austin not only through in-person engagements but also through other means,” Andolong said. (