PH, US defense chiefs discuss massing of Chinese ships in West Philippine Sea

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(FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 11) — The defense chiefs of the Philippines and the United States on Sunday discussed measures to deepen security cooperation between the two countries amid the continued presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana spoke over the phone with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to tackle recent regional security challenges, according to separate statements from the two defense departments.

Among these is the recent massing of suspected Chinese maritime militia ships at the Julian Felipe Reef, which is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The reef is part of Beijing's vast claims in the South China Sea, which includes areas Manila considers the West Philippine Sea.

“Secretary Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in international law, including the U.N Convention on the Law of the Sea,” the US Department of Defense said.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken earlier reaffirmed the Biden administration’s support for the Philippines on the matter and assured the activation of the mutual defense treaty between the two states if necessary.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. on April 7 said they will fire off daily diplomatic protests for each day the foreign vessels refuse to leave Philippine territory. The country's officials have issued stern statements regarding their presence, but the vessels still would not leave the area.

During the virtual meeting, Lorenzana also pledged to discuss the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement with President Rodrigo Duterte, according to the Department of National Defense. Duterte moved to terminate the decades-old military deal in February 2020 but later suspended its abrogation.

RELATED: Duterte undecided on fate of VFA

The DND added Lorenzana sought Austin's assistance in fast-tracking the arrival of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in the country. The first batch of the American-made vaccines is expected to arrive in May, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, Jr. earlier said.

Last Wednesday, the Philippines also raised the issue of China’s lingering presence in its territorial waters during a meeting among officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In her speech, Ambassador Elizabeth Buensuceso, acting Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for bilateral relations and ASEAN affairs, condemned actions that “intimidate, escalate tensions, [and] undermine mutual trust," adding these impede progress in the talks for a Code of Conduct in the disputed South China Sea.

“As we exert efforts in realizing an effective and substantive COC, we urge all parties to adhere to the rule of law and exercise self-restraint in line with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South and China Sea,” Buensuceso said.