Washington, Nov 20 — The United States accused China of an escalation against the Philippines and warned that an armed attack would invite a US response after an incident in disputed waters.
“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in Abuja, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken was traveling.
The action “escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law and undermines the rules-based international order.”
The Philippines said the Chinese coastguard on Tuesday fired a water cannon against boats delivering supplies to Filipino marines, forcing them to halt their mission.
The incident came as the Filipinos were traveling to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, one of a series of hotly contested areas in the South China Sea.
China defended its actions, saying that it acted to “safeguard China’s sovereignty” as the Filipinos had not been in contact with their movements.
China claims almost all of the sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade pass annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The contested waters also have valuable fishing grounds and are believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim over most of the sea to be without basis.
China controls several reefs in the South China Sea including Scarborough Shoal – which Beijing seized from Manila in 2012 – and is just 240km west of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
After China occupied Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, the Philippines marooned a derelict navy vessel atop the nearby Second Thomas Shoal to assert Manila’s territorial claim, where members of the Philippine Marines are based.
Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to pivot away from the US, the Philippines’ former colonial master, towards China since taking power in 2016 and has appeared reluctant to confront Beijing.
But facing growing domestic pressure to take a harder line, Duterte has insisted Philippine sovereignty over the waters is not negotiable.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said on Thursday “We will continue to assert our sovereignty … over our territory.”
In July, Duterte walked back on a decision to axe the 70-year-old military deal – the Visiting Forces Agreement – with the US during a visit by Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin.