U.S. to the Philippines: ‘We have your back’
The United States will defend the Philippines if its ships or aircraft are attacked in the heavily contested waters of the South China Sea, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in late February 2019.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has militarized some natural islands in the South China Sea and created artificial features through dredging to produce other military outposts. Those actions jeopardize the Philippines, Pompeo said during a joint news conference with Philippine officials in Manila.
“China’s island building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten [Philippine] sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States,” Pompeo said, according to The Washington Post newspaper. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”
A February 2019 report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative pointed out why the U.S. is concerned about China’s use of force or pressure tactics. The PRC, the report said, sent a fleet of almost 100 ships to stop construction work by the Philippines on an island in the Spratly chain.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in the news conference with Pompeo that the Philippines feels confident because of assurances made by Pompeo and U.S. President Donald Trump to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, The Associated Press (AP) reported. The bottom line of those assurances by the U.S. was clear, Locsin said. “We have your back.”
While the PRC claims to have historic rights to almost all of the South China Sea, the countries of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims. U.S. Navy ships have repeatedly conducted freedom-of-navigation operations by sailing near the Chinese-occupied islands.
“I think the whole world understands that the Trump administration has made a true commitment to making sure that these seas remain open for the security of the countries in the region and the world” and that they are open for commercial transit, Pompeo said, according to the AP.
The U.S., he added, will defend the Philippines and other countries in the region “so that these incredibly vital economic sea lanes are open, and China does not pose a threat to closing them down.” (Pictured: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, says goodbye to Sung Kim, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, while getting ready to board a plane at Col. Jesus Villamor Air Base in Manila.)
Freedom of navigation isn’t the only concern the U.S. has about Chinese influence, Pompeo said, according to The Washington Post. He warned his diplomatic counterparts about state-backed companies from China that have promised billions of dollars in investment in the Philippines. “American companies … operate with the highest standards of transparency and adherence to the rule of law,” Pompeo said. “The same cannot be said for Chinese state-run or state-backed enterprises.”