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Blinken discusses China’s aggression at sea with Philippine counterpart

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AN AERIAL VIEW of the BRP Sierra Madre at the contested Second Thomas Shoal on March 9, 2023. — REUTERS

US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday spoke with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo on the phone to discuss Chinese actions in the South China Sea, which Manila and Washington have called escalatory.

Their call followed China’s “dangerous and irresponsible actions to deny the Philippines from executing a lawful maritime operation in the South China Sea on June 17,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement posted on the agency’s website.

“Secretary Blinken emphasized that the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) actions undermine regional peace and stability and underscored the United States’ ironclad commitments to the Philippines under our Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.

Both officials also exchanged views on how to build on momentum from recent high-level bilateral engagements on issues of shared concern, he added.

The Philippine military chief on Wednesday said bolo-wielding Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) men were behind the aborted resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

Combined forces from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, coast guard and maritime militia worked together to stop the delivery of food and other supplies, with Chinese rigid hull inflatable boats ramming the rubber boats of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), chief Romeo S. Brawner, Jr. told reporters.

He said Chinese forces aboard the inflatable boats were holding bolos while they were going after two AFP rubber boats trying to deliver supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era ship that Manila grounded at the shoal in 1999 to bolster its maritime claim.

A navy officer who was on board one of the Philippine military’s rubber boats lost his right thumb after a collision with a Chinese inflatable boat, Mr. Brawner said.

Britain, Canada and the United States have condemned China’s actions, which occurred as Beijing’s new coast guard rules allowing it to detain trespassers without trial took effect on June 15.

China’s coast guard has said the Philippine Navy vessel deliberately and dangerously approached a Chinese ship in an unprofessional manner, forcing it to take control measures such as “warnings and blockades, boarding inspections and forced evictions.”

Second Thomas Shoal has been a flashpoint in recent months between the countries. The atoll lies within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile maritime zone, which China also claims as its own.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. A United Nations-backed tribunal in the Hague in 2016 voided China’s sweeping claims for being illegal.

Relations between Manila and Beijing have soured under Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who has pursued closer security ties with the US and other allies amid China’s growing assertiveness at sea.

Washington’s own ties with Beijing have been tense for years over issues like Taiwan, trade tariffs, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, technology disputes and intellectual property.

The US State Department has called the Second Thomas Shoal incident the latest in a series of Chinese “provocations” to impede supplies from reaching Philippine soldiers stationed at BRP Sierra Madre.

Manila has filed 163 diplomatic protests against China under Mr. Marcos, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Thirty protests were filed this year.

“We reiterate our call for China to adhere to international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 arbitral award, and respect the Philippines’ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in our own waters,” the agency said on Wednesday. — Norman P. Aquino with Reuters

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