The Philippines’ top diplomat Tuesday defended the passage of an American navy destroyer near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, saying the warship was exercising its right to “freedom of navigation” in the area despite protests from Beijing.
Washington remained the country’s top military ally and its warships were free to pass through waters near the Philippines at any time the United States deemed it necessary, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said.
He made the statement after China accused the U.S. over the weekend of sending a warship without its permission near Scarborough Shoal, a triangular-shaped chain of reefs that lies 227 km (137 miles) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
“The U.S. is an ally. We have an MDT, so that when they come near our shores we don’t send them a message that they are entering our territorial waters,” Cayetano said, referring to a 1952 Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls on both allies to aid each other when faced by foreign aggression from a third party.
“So when they come near we don’t send them a message that they are entering our territorial waters because we allow them to do it,” he said.
China accused Washington of provocation after it said that the USS Hopper, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, had sailed about 12 nautical miles (22 km) from Scarborough, which Beijing claims as its territory.
China warned it would take measures to “safeguard its sovereignty,” which, it claimed, the U.S. had violated. The ship’s passage had placed Chinese vessels and personnel under “grave threat,” Beijing said.
Cayetano said it was “normal” for the Chinese to protest “because they are claiming” the area.
Meanwhile, Australia appeared to also back the American position. On Tuesday, the Australian ambassador to Manila, Amanda Gorely, said countries had the right of “innocent passage” for commercial ships and other vessels, according to international sea law.
“Protecting that right is very important to us,” Gorely said, adding that her government, like the U.S., was opposed to any “new reclamation” activities in the disputed sea region, which is widely considered a potential powder keg for conflict in East Asia.
The Philippines has largely stopped naval patrols around the Scarborough Shoal since early last year, in a bid to calm tensions.
One lawmaker, former Marine Capt. Gary Alejano, has claimed that the last patrol to take place there was in January of 2017.
He said this proved that President Rodrigo Duterte, who hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in November, was not interested in strengthening efforts to boost claims to the area.
Duterte had sought to appease China after he came to power in 2016, after the previous government of Benigno Aquino had angered Beijing after lodging a complaint at the Permanent Court of Arbitration three years earlier.
The tribunal ruled in favor of Manila, rejecting Beijing’s claims over the sea area. China, however, ignored the landmark ruling and instead launched into building and fortifying structures in areas it occupies in the South China Sea.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea on historical grounds. Apart from China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam as well as Taiwan claim parts of the sea region.