U.S. Slams China "Intimidation" of Philippines After South China Sea Ruling

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that the United States would defend the Philippines if its forces came under attack in the South China Sea, in a message directed at Beijing on the anniversary of a landmark ruling about Manila's rights in the waters.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against the People's Republic of China in favor of the Philippines in a years-long dispute over maritime fishing rights in the contested waters. Beijing refused to participate in the case and preemptively rejected the findings of Philippines v. China.

"In its ruling, the Tribunal firmly rejected the PRC's expansive South China Sea maritime claims as having no basis in international law," Blinken said on the sixth anniversary of the verdict.

He also reaffirmed "that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty."

U.S., Philippines Reject China Claims After Ruling
Filipinos protest against Chinese maritime activities in the disputed South China Sea, outside the Chinese Embassy on July 12, 2022, in Makati, Philippines. The demonstration coincided with the sixth anniversary of Philippines v. China, the international tribunal ruling that denied China's historical claims in the South China Sea. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

"We call again on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law and cease its provocative behavior," Blinken said in a statement released by the State Department. In a separate tweet, he wrote: "We stand by our ally, the Philippines, in defending its rights and in opposing the PRC's provocations and intimidation."

China claims vast maritime domains in the South China Sea via widely disputed territorial claims to every feature in the energy-rich waters, including islands, reefs, shoals and rocks, within its "nine-dash line."

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which Philippines v. China was tried, submerged and low-tide features such as rock or shoals aren't entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and therefore don't generate an additional 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claimed by Beijing.

Successive administrations in Washington have backed treaty ally Manila, despite at times mixed signals from the previous government of President Rodrigo Duterte. In January, the State Department issued one of its most detailed reports—Limits in the Seas No. 150—laying out the legal rationale for refusing to recognize what China describes as "historic rights" in the South China Sea.

Duterte's successor, President Bongbong Marcos, assumed office last month amid a prolonged standoff against China in the Spratly Islands, an archipelago also nominally claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The clashes have been ongoing over the Philippine-held outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, which China now patrols with coast guard vessels.

U.S., Philippines Reject China Claims After Ruling
The U.S. reaffirmed its defense commitments to the Philippines on July 12 as it backed Manila on the sixth anniversary of Philippines v. China, the international tribunal ruling that denied China's historical claims in the South China Sea. Above, U.S. Marines take part in a joint exercise as part of Exercise Balikatan, an annual war game between defense treaty allies the U.S. and the Philippines, on March 31, 2022, in Claveria, Cagayan, Philippines. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

In a statement on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo of the Philippines didn't mention China by name, but said the 2016 ruling "affirmed to the community of nations that the rule of law prevails, and that stability, peace and progress can only be attained when founded on a rules-based legal order on the oceans, as it should be everywhere else."

"It authoritatively ruled that the claim of historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line' had no basis in law and is without legal effect," Manalo said.

The court reaffirmed "that large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial islands caused severe environmental harm in violation of international conventions," he said, "and that actions taken since the commencement of the arbitration had aggravated the disputes."

"These findings are no longer within the reach of denial and rebuttal, and are conclusive as they are indisputable. The Award is final. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it; nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories. At the same time, we welcome the support of a growing list of countries for the Award," Manalo concluded.

Beijing's increased assertiveness in the disputed waters and Manila's doubts about American defense commitments led former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to publicly affirm for the first time in February 2019 that the U.S.-Philippines defense treaty also covered attacks in the South China Sea.

China's rapid economic rise and expansive force modernization have accelerated America's relative decline in Asia and may have necessitated these clarifications. Another notable commitment came from former President Barack Obama, who in April 2014 affirmed that the U.S.-Japan security treaty covered attacks in the Senkaku Islands, the disputed East China Sea islands controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing as Diaoyu.

Governments including Canada, France and Japan, which have rebuked China through the G7 for attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China seas, reaffirmed support for the 2016 verdict on Tuesday.

In March, Beijing issued a rebuttal to Limits in the Seas No. 150 by arguing it "deliberately misrepresents the historical context and the status quo of the South China Sea issue." "It is nothing but political manipulation and provocation," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

In its response, China said its rights over the waters and its many features were a result of having "discovered, name, explored and exploited" them before any other nation millennia ago.