MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine government is keeping all its options open amid growing tensions over the presence of Chinese vessels in the contested South China Sea, the Department of National Defense (DND) said.
Disputes over the resource-rich waters have escalated in March after the Philippine military spotted more than 200 Chinese boats at the Julian Felipe Reef.
China claims that the area is part of its traditional fishing ground and that the vessels there were not a maritime militia but fishing boats that were only seeking temporary shelter due to rough sea conditions.
The Philippine government, however, insists that Julian Felipe Reef is part of the Kalayaan Island Group and lies in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Republic of the Philippines. It is located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan and 638,229 nautical miles from Hainan Island.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly fired off diplomatic protest and called for the immediate withdrawal of the vessels. China, however, refused the appeals.
“As the situation in the West Philippine Sea evolves, we keep all our options open in managing the situation, including leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the United States,” DND spokesperson Director Arsenio Andolong said in a statement.
Andolong’s issued the statement after the United States reminded China of Washington’s obligations to its treaty partners, including the Philippines, in the event of an attack in the waters.
“An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday.
“We share the concerns of our Philippine allies regarding the continued reported massing of PRC maritime militia near the Whitsun Reef,” Price said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Andolong said the United States’ admonition to China against the use of force on Philippine public vessels and aircraft, which are performing their constitutional mandate to protect and defend Philippine rights in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, “is an additional affirmation of the long-standing partnership between our two countries.”
“This also demonstrates the strength of our alliance and mutual commitment to promote the rules-based international order,” he added.
Andolong said the Philippines is closely coordinating with the United States on the matter of mutual defense.
“Both parties are committed to undertake their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty so that neither stands alone in these issues involving the two states’ inherent right of self-defense, individually and collectively,” he said.
“We remain committed to protecting and defending our national interests while upholding the security and stability in the region through a peaceful and rules-based approach,” he added.