On July 11, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a provocative statement rejecting China’s claim to the South China Sea. His statement repeated the positions set out by his predecessor Mike Pompeo the previous year and demonstrated the fundamental continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations in their war campaign against China.
Blinken’s statement was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the 2016 International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ruling upholding Manila’s claim over parts of the disputed waters.
For several years after The Hague’s arbitration award, Washington explained that it was “binding on all parties” and tried to use it to step up pressure on China. The Trump administration’s efforts in this regard, however, were hampered by the fact that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte deliberately downplayed the decision in a bid to improve diplomatic and economic relations with Beijing.
In 2020, Pompeo dramatically escalated tensions by declaring that China’s claims were “totally illegal” and “the United States rejects any PRC [People’s Republic of China] claim waters beyond a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles. It is this position that Blinken has explicitly defended, stating that “the United States reaffirms its policy of July 13, 2020 regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea”.
Blinken said, “Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order more threatened than in the South China Sea. He blamed China, saying Beijing “continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global lane.”
He called on China to “comply with its obligations under international law [and] stop his provocative behavior.
In truth, it is Washington that is destabilizing the region and engaging in provocative behavior. Pompeo and Blinken both insist on “respect for international law,” but the United States is not even a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty which it accuses China of. violate.
Since the Obama administration, Washington has embarked on a series of deliberate diplomatic and military provocations against China, turning the South China Sea into a flashpoint for world war. Blinken took another step in that direction, saying, “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on the Philippine armed forces, state ships or planes in the South China Sea would invoke the United States’ mutual defense commitments under of Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. “
Article IV of the 1951 Treaty states that both parties recognize “that an armed attack in the Pacific region against either party would be dangerous to its own peace and security and declares that it would act. to face common dangers in accordance with its constitutional provisions. process. The treaty was designed to trigger steps towards war by both countries in the event one of them is attacked.
In the decade since Obama launched his pivot to Asia, there has been much speculation in the Philippines as to whether or not this language of mutual obligation applied to the waters of the South China Sea, because the treaty only spoke of the “Pacific area” and the “metropolitan territory”.
At a press conference in 2019, Pompeo for the first time explicitly expressed the position that an armed attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4. Blinken a now makes this position an important part of its public statements.
Beijing responded to Blinken’s claim that it was the region’s provocative party. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the United States “has conducted close-range reconnaissance nearly 2,000 times and more than 20 large-scale military exercises at sea targeting China. In addition, the United States is abusing bilateral military agreements that resemble the Cold War to threaten to use force against China … It stands to reason that coercion and intimidation seek and threaten the freedom and security of the United States. navigation.
The day after the publication of the Blinken Declaration, Washington sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold to conduct a so-called Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near the Chinese-held Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
China denounced the maneuver. People’s Liberation Army South Theater Command spokesperson Air Force Colonel Tian Junli issued statement calling FONOP “further proof of hegemony. aggressive US shipping and the militarization of the South China Sea ”.
Blinken’s remarks were also a calculated intervention in Philippine politics. All political parties and factions of the ruling elite are maneuvering for the next presidential election in May 2022. Washington’s overriding concern is to reverse the damage done to its influence in the region by the geopolitical shift operated by the Duterte administration.
At the end of President Benigno Aquino’s term in 2016, the Philippines, a former colony of the United States, was the primary proxy for Washington’s interests in the Southeast Asia region. Manila had just won the arbitral judgment in The Hague, highlighting a case drafted and pleaded by an American law firm closely linked to the Obama administration. The Aquino administration had pledged to abide by the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allowed the unlimited stationing of US forces in the country.
Duterte reversed these policies. Seeking to secure loans and investments from China, he played down the South China Sea’s decision, withdrew from the most provocative joint war games with the United States, and threatened to end the visiting forces agreement on which the EDCA was based.
Populist fascist Duterte presided over mass murders for five years, carried out in the name of a war on drugs. The Philippine constitution limits the president to a six-year term and therefore cannot stand for re-election. He recently announced his intention to run for vice-president, and it is widely accepted that his main concern is to maintain state immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC). , who prepared a case against him.
The favorite for the president in current polls is his daughter, the mayor of the southern city of Davao, Sarah Duterte. She is cut from the same fabric as her father: brutal, subject to the measures of the police and dictatorial state, but effective populist. Everything suggests that a presidency of Sarah Duterte would see the continuation of her father’s foreign policy.
The bourgeois opposition to Duterte shares a common interest in reorienting foreign policy from the Philippines to the United States. However, they have so far failed to unite behind, or even come up with a viable candidate. The concern is that none of the opposition candidates can match Duterte’s appeal.
The current leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Vice-President Leni Robredo, has long been seen as the opposition’s default candidate. However, she hesitated for months to declare her candidacy and took possible steps to run for governor instead.
The organizing force for a realignment of Philippine relations to the United States and for an aggressive confrontation with China is the newly formed 1Sambayan party. 1Sambayan was created to select a candidate from the unified opposition and provide him with an anti-China platform. 1Sambayan has received support from both groups that follow the political line of the Communist Stalinist Party of the Philippines and the far-right Magdalo Party.
It is still early in the race and political alignments will change and new contenders will emerge. Right now, however, Sarah Duterte’s main opponent is Manny Pacquiao, the boxer-turned-senator. Pacquiao has been a close ally of Duterte for several years, supporting his war on drugs and pushing for legislation to reintroduce the death penalty by hanging.
Pacquiao recently had a very public falling out with the president, however, and is now seen as a possible presidential candidate for the opposition. 1Sambayan quickly announced that they were ready to support Pacquiao if he asked for their support. The only apparent component of 1Sambayan’s call for support is to accept his policy on China.
None of these personalities is a defender of democracy or human rights. The dispute between ruling and opposition circles is entirely geopolitical.
It is this volatile situation that Blinken’s provocative statement attempts to shape. By rejecting China’s claim to the South China Sea and claiming that the United States is bound by treaty to the Philippines in the event of an armed conflict with China, it attempts to put the Philippine presidential election behind Washington’s interests. .