US backs PH in laser dispute with China, warns it will invoke defense treaty

The recent “provocative and unsafe” behavior of the Chinese Coast Guard against the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in the contested waters of the South China Sea, in an area that’s part of Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, could prompt the US to its invoke a defense treaty with the Philippines, a high-ranking US official warned on Tuesday, Feb. 14 (Manila time).

(Photo from Philippine Coast Guard)

US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price released a statement posted on the State Department’s official website and shared by the US Embassy in the Philippines on its official Facebook page regarding the Feb. 6 incident between the China Coast Guard and PCG.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft, including those of the Coast Guard in the South China Sea, would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.

Article IV of the MDT reads, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

Price said that the United States stands with its Philippine allies after China’s Coast Guard pointed a “military grade” laser at some of the Filipino crew aboard BRP Malapascua while on a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre near Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, in the Spratly Islands chain, known in China as the Nansha Islands. China calls the shoal Renai Reef.

READ: China Coast Guard ship points ‘blinding’ laser at PCG vessel

The statement reminded Beijing to abide by the July 2016 “legally binding decision” of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Arbitral Tribunal) in The Hague, wherein the Court ruled that “the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has no lawful maritime claims to Second Thomas Shoal.”

“The United States reiterates, pursuant to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, the 2016 arbitral decision is final and legally binding on the PRC and the Philippines, and we call upon the PRC to abide by the ruling,” it said.

“The PRC’s conduct was provocative and unsafe, resulting in the temporary blindness of the crewmembers of the BRP Malapascua and interfering with the Philippines’ lawful operations in and around Second Thomas Shoal,” the statement read.

“More broadly, the PRC’s dangerous operational behavior directly threatens regional peace and stability, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order,” Price added.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the 1.3 million square mile West Philippine Sea, including waters and features claimed in full or in part by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Taiwan.

Beijing’s expansive maritime claims are based on ancient maps wherein a U-shaped nine-dash line covering the entire sea could be found.