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The United States once again stepped up on the international chessboard to defend the Philippines. After China used a laser to temporarily blind the crew of a Philippine ship, the American government warned Beijing. The State Department assured that it will defend the Philippines against any potential “armed attack” by China.
To give some context to the situation, last February 6, tensions between China and the Philippines reached a peak. According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), a Chinese coast guard ship had directed a “military-grade laser” at one of their ships while they were attempting to supply their troops based at Second Thomas Shoal.
The PCG stated that this was a “clear violation of the Philippines’ sovereign rights,” while the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs sent a formal protest to the Chinese Embassy. This missive “condemned the shadowing, harassment, dangerous maneuvers, directing of military-grade laser, and illegal radio challenges” by the Chinese ship.
The conflict in the South China Sea is not new. For years China has been claiming maritime sovereignty in what they call the “nine-dash line,” a drawing that was made by the Kuomintang political party in 1946, shortly before leaving power. It is only a line that does not have precise coordinates, which is why it has given rise to more than one conflict with its neighbors and especially with the Philippines.
In other words, China claims that part of the Philippine sea is its territory, so they sometimes act accordingly, generating significant diplomatic friction. In July 2016, a United Nations arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines by stating that the “nine-dash line” has no legal effect. Needless to say, the Chinese government ignored the ruling.
This growing tension strengthened the diplomatic bond between Manila and Washington. Indeed, both countries recently agreed to expand U.S. Army access to Philippine military facilities, which extended the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
As noted by Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S.-Philippine relationship “has entered a new era.” This was further echoed by Ned Price, State Department spokesman, who called China’s behavior “provocative and unsafe.”
“More broadly, the PRC’s dangerous operational behavior directly threatens regional peace and stability, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order,” the official said.
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Moreover, in a clear message to Beijing, he assured that the United States would not hesitate to defend the Philippines against an eventual Chinese advance. “The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft, including those of the Coast Guard in the South China Sea, would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” Price said, citing a mutual defense treaty dating back to 1951.
The State Department spokesman was referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines, which dictates that both nations must support each other in case a third party attacks them. In other words, if China attacks the Philippines, the United States has an obligation to defend it and vice versa.
“The Parties separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack,” reads the second article of the treaty.
Joaquín Núñez es licenciado en comunicación periodística por la Universidad Católica Argentina. Se especializa en el escenario internacional y en la política nacional norteamericana. Confeso hincha de Racing Club de Avellaneda // Joaquín Núñez has a degree in journalistic communication from the Universidad Católica Argentina. He specializes in the international scene and national American politics. Confessed fan of Racing Club of Avellaneda.