Washington/Beijing, Jul 12 (PTI) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked Beijing to abide by its obligations under international law and cease its “provocative behaviour” in the South China Sea, as he reaffirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to defend the Philippines’ armed forces from an “armed attack” by China.
Tensions in the South China Sea, which is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have spiked this year, with Manila accusing Beijing of trying to intimidate its coast guard vessels.
Blinken made the comments on Sunday, in a statement marking the fifth anniversary of a ruling by an independent arbitration tribunal rejecting China’s expansive territorial claims over the strategic waterway, siding with the Philippines.
The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague dismissed China’s claims to the South China Sea, while making clear that China was infringing on Philippine sovereignty through activities such as island-building in Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The top American diplomat said the US could invoke a 70-year-old US-Philippine mutual defence pact in the event of any Chinese military action against Philippine assets in the region.
“Freedom of the seas is an enduring interest of all nations and is vital to global peace and prosperity,” Blinken said, adding that the international community has long benefited from the rules-based maritime order, where international law, as reflected in the UN Law of the Sea Convention, sets out the legal framework for all activities in the oceans and seas.
“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway,” he said.
The US reaffirms its July 13, 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea, Blinken said, reiterating a Trump-era policy of rejecting China’s claims in the maritime area.
“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defence commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
Blinken then went on to call on China to “abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behaviour, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”
Reacting sharply to Blinken’s statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian termed the US statement as “irresponsible”.
He said the statement disregarded the historical merits and objective facts of the South China Sea issue, violates and distorts international law, and breaks the US government’s long-held public commitment of not taking a position on the South China Sea sovereignty issue.
“It deliberately stokes disputes on territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, sows discord among regional countries and undermines regional peace and stability. This is extremely irresponsible. China is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to the wrong act by the US side.
“The US accusation that our maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea have no basis in international law totally runs counter to facts,” he said.
Zhao said the award of the arbitration is “illegal, null and void. It is nothing more than a piece of waste paper. China does not accept or participate in the arbitration, nor does it accept or recognise the award.”
“China’s sovereignty and rights and interests over the South China Sea are not affected at all by the arbitration and China does not accept any claim or act based on it. Anyone with a discerning eye can easily see that the arbitration is a political farce which is initiated and manipulated by the US to smear and suppress China.
“The political agenda of the US to hype up the South China Sea issue by taking advantage of the 5th anniversary of the illegal award can’t be more obvious,” he added.
Under the joint efforts of countries in the region including China, passage through the South China sea has been smooth and safe for a period of time, and not a single vessel has ever reported that it’s navigation is hindered or safety threatened in the South China Sea.
The US allegation of “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea threatened is simply untenable, the spokesman said.
The US and several other world powers have been talking about the need to ensure a free, open and thriving Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of China’s rising military manoeuvring in the region.
China claims nearly all of the disputed South China Sea, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it. Beijing has built artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, underscoring the US stance, the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold performed a freedom on navigation operation (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands in the northwestern part of the South China Sea on Monday, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.
These islands, referred to as the Xisha in China, are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, but China has controlled them since the 1970s.
Responding to this, China said it put forces in place to “warn and drive away” the US destroyer, which it said violated its sovereignty.
The US last challenged claims in the Paracels in May.
“This is another ironclad evidence of the US’ aggressive navigational hegemony and militarisation of the South China Sea,” PLA Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesperson for the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, said in a statement.