US hands-off policy on South China Sea dispute

US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim

US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim recently issued a statement, saying that America will defend the Philippines should a foreign force attack any of the country’s territories.

“Our commitment set in the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is absolute that we will defend the Philippines,” said Kim during the Ambassador Series forum organized by Asia Society Philippines.

The US ambassador is referring to the treaty between the Philippines and US that was signed in 1951, which provides for the US to come to the assistance of the Philippines if its metropolitan territory or island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific area would be attacked.

Kim made the statement, however, with a caveat, which is that their hands-off policy on the Philippine-China territorial dispute is irrefutable.

What this means is that while the US is monitoring closely developments in the South China Sea amid the continuing militarization efforts by China on its man-made islands in the area, what concerns most the US is that the freedom of navigation in this part of the world goes must remain unhampered and undisturbed.

Not only that.

The US military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies. This is what is described as free nautical movement.

“…What we do is freedom of navigation and overflight to the freedoms of assembly and expression online. These are the things that we will enforce and so we fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits.”

This statement was issued by Brian Hook, a senior adviser to the US Secretary of State on Asia Policy.

Hook described China’s militarization of the South China Sea as “provocative” and reiterated US commitment to uphold international law.

“We very strongly believe that China’s rise cannot come at the expense of the values and rules-based order… When China’s behavior is out of step with these values and these rules, we will stand up and defend the rule of law,” he said.

It will be noted that the Philippines has raised its claims on the South China Sea to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration and was favored by the international court in 2016. China, however, has refused to recognize the ruling.

Be that as it may, the US policy on free nautical movement is consolation enough that somehow claimant nations in the territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea that are allies of the US are protected.

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Balikatan exercise 2015 and China’s military build-up in the South China Sea

balikatan-joint-military-exercise-6This year’s Philippine-US Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) military exercise is considered the largest, being participated by 11,000 soldiers (around 5,000 Filipinos and 6,000 Americans).

The exercise is an annual joint military event which seeks to improve the capability of the two countries’ forces to respond militarily to threats that include terrorists, pirates and smugglers, which could be summed up as maritime security threats, and as well as dealing with natural disasters.

It is also a time to showcase partly America’s newer military hardware with its awesome firepower.

Suffice to say that its primary aim is to maintain security and peace in the Asia Pacific region with the country being a party to the Mutual Defense Treaty Agreement with the US and the armed forces a beneficiary of a modernization program.

But, isn’t is ironic that while the Balikatan exercise is going on today, supposedly to prepare and enhance our bilateral capabilities in confronting and protecting the country’s sovereignty against internal and external threats, China is at the same time aggressively building up its military presence in the South China Sea, encroaching even now in areas which we think and deem our own?

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg expressed that through this bilateral exercise, current challenges being faced by the Asia Pacific region will be solved.

How?

What could be more brazen and menacing challenge to a third world country and the mightiest country in the world than China’s continuing reclamation projects in the South China Sea reaching now within the Philippines’ 200-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is a clear violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)?

Not only is China purposely acting oblivious of the UNCLOS, but China is also flagrantly unmindful of what the US and other Western powers say about its all or nothing claim of the South China Sea.

And yet US Ambassador Philip Goldberg says that this exercise is the kind that will help maintain in Asia the freedom of aviation and navigation as well as the diplomacy in Asia Pacific region.

How could there be freedom of aviation and navigation in the South China Sea when one giant of a nation is dictating the demarcation of claims by sovereign states in the region and controlling the passage of planes and ships later?

It is affecting the livelihood of many Filipino fishermen in the area now.

Tomorrow it will be the people of the world who will be disadvantaged, unless the US and its powerful allies in the Western world will help put order in the South China Sea region.