THE defense secretaries of the United States and the Philippines jointly denounced China’s “gray-zone” operations—activities that just fall short of war—in the South China Sea, saying these acts interfere with the livelihood of Filipino fishermen.
In a readout provided by the US Department of Defense following a phone call between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Senior Undersecretary Carlito Galvez, the two officials also called out Beijing for its activities that impede the rights of other claimant states “that seek to operate lawfully in the South China Sea consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.”
Austin and Galvez lamented “with particular concern” the Chinese aggression in the waters where it deployed earlier this month more than 40 vessels, including a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship, to the waters off the Philippine-administered Pag-asa (Thitu) Island.
“The swarming of vessels falls on the heels of a dangerous incident last month, in which the PRC (People’s Republic of China) Coast Guard directed a military-grade laser against a Philippine vessel operating lawfully around Second Thomas Shoal, temporarily blinding some of the crew,” the readout said.
Amid Chinese aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, Austin reiterated Washington’s commitment to the Philippines as its ally. In case of any armed attack, the US official assured the Philippines that Washington would invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty.
Austin said the pact would cover the Philippine armed forces, and Philippine aircraft and public vessels, including those of the Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea.
The two officials welcomed the upcoming joint military exercises between the US and the Philippines—called Balikatan—as it will be the largest iteration since. More than 17,000 troops will participate.
Austin and Galvez also talked about extending the partnership of the two countries through activities in the South China Sea.
But House Deputy Minority leader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro expressed her strong opposition to the upcoming war games with the United States.
“The Philippines should not proceed with the scheduled joint training exercises with US troops next month to avoid getting caught in the middle of tensions between the United States and China,” Castro said.
She said with the ongoing conflict between the US and China, “the Philippines will be put at risk.”
Last week Balikatan 2023 spokesperson Col. Michael Logico announced that over 17,000 Filipino and US troops will be participating in the training exercises.
The drills, which will focus on naval exercises, intend to ensure combat readiness and upgrade the skills of both forces.
Diplomats from the Philippines and China are scheduled to hold a series of meetings in Manila this week to discuss various concerns, including the disputed waters in the South China Sea, amid Chinese incursions in the country’s exclusive economic zone.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said the dialogues will take place during the 23rd Philippines-China Foreign Ministry Consultations (FMC) on March 23 and the 7th Bilateral Consultations Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea on March 24.
The DFA said the discussions will cover an array of issues, including economic, people-to-people, maritime, security, and regional matters.