Antony Blinken Says U.S. Will Defend the Philippines From Attacks in South China Sea

The United States will defend the Philippines against attacks in the South China Sea, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told his counterpart in Manila.

Blinken stressed the importance of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty and "its clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea," according to a State Department read-out of a phone call between the two released on Wednesday.

He told Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. that the U.S. rejects China's claims in the contested South China Sea "to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law," the State Department said.

The read-out—the secretary's first to make explicit mention of China's vast territorial claims—said Blinken would "stand with Southeast Asian claimants" in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Shortly after the conversation, Locsin tweeted that he and Blinken "will get a lot done soon."

The call came a day after Locsin's Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that it had lodged a diplomatic protest over China's new coastguard law, which gives Chinese maritime authorities permission to fire on foreign vessels.

Locsin had previously said Beijing's legislation—formally adopted by the National People's Congress on Friday—was "none of our business," before revealing that he had changed his mind.

"While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one—given the area involved or for that matter the open South China Sea—is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law; which, if unchallenged, is submission to it," he wrote on Twitter.

China's foreign ministry said the law was in line with international practices. It has nevertheless caused alarm because of Beijing's sweeping claims to reefs in the South China Sea, which are disputed by regional neighbors including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Territorial disputes also extend to the East China Sea, where the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands are claimed by both China and Taiwan.

There remains a strong military presence in the South China Sea, with the People's Liberation Army conducting three days of naval exercises up to January 30, just days after the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was deployed to the region for its own drills.

Other calls made by Blinken on Wednesday included conversations with his counterparts in Thailand and Australia. Key regional allies in Japan and South Korea were called on Tuesday, according to the State Department.

One of President Joe Biden's campaign pledges was to return the United States to a leading role in regional and global affairs. His cabinet choices appear to point to a strong desire to maintain U.S. interests in Asia and counter China's growing influence.

In nearly every call to foreign ministers, Blinken stressed the importance of a "free and open Indo-Pacific," a strategy that was formalized under the administration of Donald Trump.

U.S. Navy Docks in Philippines
File photo of Navy personnel on the deck of the USS Blue Ridge after it docked in Manila Bay on March 13, 2019. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S will defend the Philippines. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images