MANILA: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday vowed to defend the Philippines against ‘armed attack’ in the disputed South China Sea in Washington’s starkest warning yet against Chinese claims to most of the strategic waterway.
Speaking in Manila after meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Pompeo said Beijing’s artificial islands in waters also claimed by the Southeast Asian nation and other neighbours was a threat.
“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the US,” he said at a joint news conference with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin.
“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack of Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defence obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defence Treaty.”
Pompeo’s comments marked the first time any US official had publicly stated Washington’s intent to defend its poorly-armed ally specifically in the flashpoint sea.
A 1951 US-Philippine mutual defence treaty committed Manila and its former colonial master to come to each other’s aid in case of an ‘armed attack in the Pacific area’ on either party.
Senior Duterte officials have called for a review of the pact because they were unsure
whether it applied to the maritime row.
Philippine troops and fishermen have frequently complained about harassment by Chinese maritime security forces around some of the islands and reefs Manila occupies.
The US has said it is not taking sides in the dispute over waters claimed by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
However, Washington has asserted its right to freely sail over waters through which trillions of dollars in global trade pass through each year and which reputedly contain vast mineral and oil reserves.
The Philippines used to be the staunchest critic of China’s expansive claims over the sea.
But after his election in 2016 Duterte put the dispute on the back burner in favour of courting Chinese trade and investment.
He threatened a split with the US and called then President Barack Obama a ‘son of a whore’.
Relations are being rebuilt under US President Donald Trump, who has hailed Duterte’s actions — including a drugs crackdown that has claimed thousands of lives — as a sign of toughness.
Locsin yesterday downplayed his government’s suggestions for a review of the defence pact, saying in its ‘vagueness lies the best deterrence’.
“We are very assured, we are very confident that US has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and words of President Trump to our president: we have your back,” Locsin said. — AFP