Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed US support for the Philippines as tensions are rising between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Philippine Air Force has been conducting patrols over a group of Chinese fishing vessels near Whitson Reef, a disputed reef in the South China Sea that China, the Philippines, and Vietnam all claim. Manila said it spotted 220 Chinese vessels near the reef that it claims are a “maritime militia,” although Beijing insists the ships are just fishing vessels that took shelter near the reef during bad weather.
Blinken took Manila’s side in a statement on Twitter. “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitson Reef,” he said. “We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.”
Whitson Reef is located about 175 nautical miles west of the Philippine province of Palawan and is part of the disputed Spratly Islands.
Whitson is one of the many reefs in the region that China and several Southeast Asian countries have overlapping claims to. Last year, the Trump administration formally rejected most of Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea.
The US frequently sails warships near Chinese-claimed islands in the region to challenge Beijing, maneuvers that started under the Obama administration, were ramped up under Trump, and are continuing under President Biden.
In one of his first phone calls as Secretary of State, Blinken spoke with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Locsin and made it clear that any incident between the Philippines and Beijing in the South China Sea could bring the US into war. According to a readout of the call, Blinken “stressed the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations, and its clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.”
The US and the Philippines are currently negotiating an extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows US troops in the Philippines on a rotational basis. In 2020, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was ready to scrap the VFA after the US sanctioned Philippine officials for their role in the country’s drug war.
Duterte reversed the decision citing tensions in the South China Sea, and now, he’s looking to get as much money as he can out of Washington and has said the US will “have to pay” to extend the VFA. With the Biden administration prioritizing countering China in the region, Duterte’s in a good position to negotiate.