US leads nations backing PH in new West Philippine Sea tensions

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 25) — The United States was joined by Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom in expressing strong support to the Philippines' filing of diplomatic protest over the deployment of suspected Chinese maritime militia vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

The U.S. State Department affirmed its commitment to stand with Manila after over 200 militia boats were spotted on March 7 at the Julian Felipe Reef, located within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone as provided in the historic 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.

As of Monday, 183 vessels suspected to be Chinese maritime militia remained station in Philippine waters despite formal protests.

"We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security," U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a tweet.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila earlier backed the Philippines in its diplomatic protest, with its filing confirmed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. last Sunday.

"The [People's Republic of China] uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region," Embassy spokesperson Heather Fabrikant said in a statement. "We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia."

Australia voiced out its concern on brewing tensions in the West Philippine Sea as those actions can provoke escalation on both sides.

"Australia supports an Indo-Pacific region which is secure open and inclusive. The South China Sea — a crucial international waterway is governed by international rules and norms, particularly UNCLOS," said Ambassador Steve Robinson, Australian envoy to the Philippines.

Canada also slammed the latest action of China that threatens regional stability, according to a statement from Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur.

“Canada opposes recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including off the coast of the Philippines, that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order," the statement read.

United Kingdom Foreign Minister Nigel Adams said he talked to Locsin on their shared concerns in the status quo at the West Philippine Sea.

"The Philippines is an important partner for the UK and Indo-Pacific," Adams said in his tweet.

Meanwhile, Japan emphasized the enforcement of the rule of law in the West Philippine Sea to have a "free, open, and peaceful" situation in the disputed waters.

"The South China Sea issues are directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all," the Japanese Embassy in Manila said.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila fired back on their Japanese counterparts, asserting it promotes peace and stability in the region by managing differences through bilateral talks with other countries.

"Within our region tensions are rising because some external countries are bent on playing fusty geopolitical games," the Chinese Embassy said in it stweet. "It is a pity that some Asian country, which has disputes with China in the East China Sea and is driven by the selfish aim to check China's revitalization, willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal of the U.S."

The Chinese Embassy also denied that the spotted boats are militia vessels, arguing those are merely fishing vessels which took shelter near the area due to rough sea conditions. It said the reef is part of China's Nansha Qundao, also known as Spratly Islands - a hotly contested archipelago in the South China Sea.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is deploying additional Navy ships to beef up the conduct of maritime sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in December 2020 warned that China may have "increased the frequency" of its patrols in the South China Sea during the COVID-19 pandemic, including areas Manila claims as part of the West Philippine Sea. In the same report, the U.S. think tank flagged that Chinese forces conducted patrols at Scarborough Shoals, also known as Panatag, for a total of 287 days from Dec. 1, 2019.