South China Sea

New US top diplomat calls Locsin, vows support vs China ‘pressure’

Sofia Tomacruz

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New US top diplomat calls Locsin, vows support vs China ‘pressure’

TOP DIPLOMAT. Newly confirmed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concludes his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington DC on January 27, 2021.

Photo by Carlos Barria/Pool/Reuters

(3rd UPDATE) 'Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure,' says the US State Department

Newly confirmed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to back Southeast Asian countries resisting pressure from Beijing in the South China Sea as Washington continues to reject China’s claims in this strategic waterway.

Blinken made the assertion on Thursday, January 28, during a phone call with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr of the Philippines, the US’ oldest ally in Asia.

Blinken’s statement to Locsin was the first public indication of the Biden administration’s stand on the South China Sea dispute and was a reassurance to countries the region unsure over whether Washington’s hard stance on the maritime dispute would continue. 

In an official statement, US State Department Spokesperon Ned Price said Blinken “underscored that the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China” permitted under the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. 

“Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC (People’s Republic of China) pressure,” Price added. 

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During the call, Blinken had also reportedly tackled the nearly 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Manila and Washington, where both sides committed to defend one another in case of an attack. 

Blinken had stressed the treaty’s importance for the two countries and its “clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea,” the State Department said. 

The US’ reassurance of the MDT’s scope was significant considering the issue had long been a point of concern for officials in Manila, until former US State secretary Mike Pompeo made it clear the defense pact covered the South China Sea. 

Despite this, South China Sea analysts earlier pointed out that for the MDT to remain effective, both countries would need to renegotiate its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which remains in limbo. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier decided to unilaterally terminate the VFA last February 2020, only to later suspend its abrogation until August 2021. 

On Thursday afternoon, Locsin thanked Blinken for the “great conversation,” adding the two countries “will get a lot done soon.”

Price said both Blinken and Locsin “committed to continue building upon a relationship founded on shared strategic interests and history, democratic values, and strong people-to-people ties.”

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China claims almost all of the energy-rich South China Sea, which is also a major trade route. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

The United States has accused China of taking advantage of the distraction of the coronavirus pandemic to advance its presence in the South China Sea.

US relations with China deteriorated under former US President Donald Trump over a variety of issues including the pandemic, Chinese policies in Hong Kong, Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim minority and trade.

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and companies for alleged misdeeds in the South China Sea. – with reports from Reuters/

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.