Blinken Pledges Support for Philippines in South China Sea as Beijing Claims Its Navy ‘Drove Away’ US Ship

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TOPSHOT - A protester holds a US flag outside of the Chinese consulate in Houston on July 24, 2020, after the US State Department ordered China to close the consulate. - The US ordered China to close its Houston consulate, Beijing said on July 22, in what it called a "political provocation" that will further harm diplomatic relations. (Image: FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)

On July 11, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated that the U.S. would come to the aid of the Philippines should China choose to attack any of their aircraft or ships, the Associated Press (AP) reports. 

Blinken said that an attack of this nature “would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” referring to a 1951 treaty between the two countries that obliges both nations to come to the other’s defense in the event of an attack. 

Blinken’s statement came on the anniversary of a 2016 international tribunal that rejected China’s maritime territorial claims outside of their internationally recognized waters and supported the Philippines legally established maritime claims. 

People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called Blinken’s comments a “political farce” and said that China’s territorial claims have “sufficient historical and legal basis,” according to AP.

Blinken’s comments came at a time when Beijing claimed that they had chased a U.S. warship out of a disputed area in the South China Sea.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stated that they sent ships and aircraft after the U.S.S. Benfold after it entered waters near the Paracel Islands claimed by Beijing.

The PLA stated on social media that Chinese forces “warned them and drove them away.” adding that “the actions of the U.S. military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security.”

US Navy rejects Chinese claims

The U.S. Navy fired back in a statement by the 7th Fleet Public Affairs office, rejecting the Chinese claims but provided little detail about the encounter with the PLA.

The U.S.S. Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, operated “in accordance with international law then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters” stated the U.S. Navy in a statement. 

In the statement, published online, the 7th Fleet stated, “On July 12, USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law.” adding that “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.”

The U.S. Navy reiterated that all of their operations are designed to be conducted “in accordance with international law” and asserted that “the PRC’s statement about this mission is false.”

Beijing’s claims in the area are rooted in a 1996 declaration by the PRC that redrew straight baselines encompassing the Paracel Islands; a declaration that was not recognized internationally and that is believed to be in contravention of established international law

“The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms,” the statement reads.

The PRC’s recent claims in turn stem from a 1947 claim by the earlier Republic of China (ROC) to the South China Sea. The ROC, now based on Taiwan after losing the mainland to the communist rebels, still maintains a parallel claim.   

The PLA posturing comes at a time when China is being accused of outfitting a fleet of ‘fishing vessels’ with military grade surveillance equipment. The ‘fishing vessels’ regularly rattle neighboring nations and even go as far as to repeatedly violate these nation’s exclusive economic zones. 

Dubbed the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM) the fleet of vessels have recently drawn the ire of the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken when the fleet encroached on the Philippines exclusive economic zone around the Whitsun reef.

“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order,” Blinken stated in a tweet at the time.