US will defend the Philippines if China attacks

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. walk on the West Colonnade to the Oval Office following a welcome ceremony at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 1, 2023. Carolyn Kaster/Pool via REUTERS

US President Joe Biden has issued a warning to China, stating that the United States will come to the defence of the Philippines if there is an attack in the disputed South China Sea. This statement comes after a series of incidents involving collisions between Filipino and Chinese vessels in the contested waters.

Biden confirmed the unwavering commitment of the United States to defend the Philippines and reiterated the strength of their defence agreement. The Philippines has been contesting China’s claims in the South China Sea and has taken measures such as removing floating barriers and inviting media to observe what they describe as provocative actions by Beijing at sea.

The recent statement from President Biden represents his firmest stance on the South China Sea issue, especially given the escalating tensions between Beijing and Manila in recent months. He made it clear that the Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 binds the US and the Philippines to mutually defend each other in the event of an armed attack. He further stated that any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels, or armed forces would trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by asserting that the US has no right to interfere in issues between China and the Philippines. The Ministry added that if the US were to defend the Philippines, it must not compromise China’s sovereignty and maritime interests in the South China Sea.

The recent collisions between Chinese and Filipino vessels occurred in an area falling within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which has led to accusations of dangerous manoeuvres by China. In one incident, a collision occurred between a Chinese coast guard ship and a Filipino supply boat, and in another, a Philippine coast guard vessel was allegedly bumped by a Chinese militia boat.

The Philippines’ defence minister, Gilberto Teodoro Jr, accused China of intentionally striking the Philippine vessels and distorting the facts to serve its own interests. President Biden supported these claims, stating that the Chinese vessels had acted in a dangerous and unlawful manner during these incidents.

The Philippines holds strategic importance for the US due to its proximity to potential problematic areas in the Pacific, including the South China Sea and Taiwan. Since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed office in June 2022 and reinvigorated the Philippines’ alliance with the US, Filipino authorities have taken a more assertive stance in contesting China’s actions in the South China Sea. This shift represents a departure from the pro-China stance of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who faced criticism for not taking stronger measures against Beijing’s assertiveness in the region and for not invoking Manila’s legal victory against China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea as ruled by an international tribunal.

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