US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday 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 after meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, Pompeo said Beijing’s artificial islands in waters also claimed by the Southeast Asian nation and other neighbors 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 United States,” he said at a joint news conference with 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 defense 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 the Philippines specifically in the flashpoint sea.
A 1951 US-Philippine mutual defense 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.
Troops and fishermen have frequently complained about harassment by Chinese maritime security forces around some of the islands and reefs Manila occupies.
The United States 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 critics of China’s expansive claims over the sea.
But after his election in 2016, Duterte put the dispute on the back burner in favor of courting Chinese trade and investment.
He threatened a split with the United States 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 on Friday downplayed his government’s suggestions for a review of the defense pact, saying in its “vagueness lies the best deterrence.”
“We are very assured, we are very confident that United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and words of President Trump to our President: We have your back,” Locsin said.
But Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty still needs to be reviewed to clarify some “kinks” and to make the terms of the pact more clear-cut.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also said the defense treaty needed to be reviewed.
This view differed from Locsin’s.
“My own view, it is a dynamic exchange that’s going on in government, my own view is no. I believe in the old theory of deterrence. I have been an old man, I’ve engaged in the Cold War for longer than you. In vagueness lies the best deterrence,” Locsin said during a press briefing.
“How do you flesh out that vagueness? In the repeated assurances by the US that in the event of an act of aggression committed against the Philippines. I don’t believe going down into the details is the way the sincerity of the American commitment can be shown,” he said.
Pompeo and Locsin also discussed the US support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Modernization Program as well as the government’s campaign against all forms of criminality especially terrorism and its connection with illegal drugs trade.
READ: PH-US defense pact likely item in Pompeo visit
“Ideally mutual defense should cover a partner’s back as well as its front. Secretary Pompeo and I agreed that it was in both our countries’ interest to ensure that the alliance effectively address other non-traditional security issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; and, above all, the fight against human trafficking,” Locsin said.
READ: ‘Pompeo visit to make US understand PH policy’
Pompeo, for his part, raised the importance of a free press during his talks with Locsin.
“I raised with my counterpart the importance of protecting the rights and liberties of all Filipinos including free speech, a free press, and due process under the law,” Pompeo said in his opening remarks during his joint press conference with Locsin. With AFP and PNA
READ: America’s state secretary likens Duterte to Trump
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