The US has said that China should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in South China Sea (Image courtesy: Twitter/@Philippine_Navy)
A few hours after the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the overall situation in the South China Sea as "tranquil", US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin dialled his Philippines counterpart Delfin Lorenzana late Friday evening to discuss recent events in the region.
Tensions have escalated in the disputed waters since November 16 when three Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and water cannoned two Philippine supply boats en route to transport food supplies to Philippine military personnel in Ayungin Shoal, also known as the Second Thomas Shoal, in the South China Sea.
While on one was hurt, an angry Manila lashed out at Beijing after aborting its resupply mission.
It reminded China that Ayungin Shoal is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), which is an integral part of the Philippines, as well as the Philippines' exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and over which the Philippines has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
Country's Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said that he has conveyed "in the strongest terms" to Huang Xilian, Ambassador of China and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing Philippines' outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident.
"I reminded China that a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty. The acts of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels are illegal. China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off," Locsin said in a statement released by the Department of Foreign Affairs of Philippines.
Emphasising that the "failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship between the Philippines and China", Locsin said that Philippines will continue to provide supplies to its troops in the Second Thomas Shoal as it does not need to "ask permission" to do what it needs to do in its territory.
US stands firmly with Philippines
Standing firmly with the Philippines, the United States has said that it "strongly believes" that China's actions asserting its "expansive and unlawful South China Sea maritime claims" undermine peace and security in the region.
Washington has also told Beijing that it should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
"The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability, escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order," said US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Friday.
The US said that it stands with the Philippines in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, adding that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defence commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty.
"On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, delivered a unanimous and enduring decision firmly rejecting the PRC's claims to Second Thomas Shoal and to waters determined to be part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone," said Price.
On Friday evening, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin spoke with Philippines Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana on the phone and "reaffirmed the strong US commitment" to the Philippines under the Mutual Defence Treaty.
"They agreed on the vital importance of peace and stability in the South China Sea and pledged to stay in close contact in the coming days. Secretary Austin reiterated that the United States will stand with our Philippine allies," said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.
Beijing calls relationship with ASEAN 'special'
The latest incident in South China Sea comes amid a wider conflict breaking out in the region and just days ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping attending and chairing the ASEAN-China Special Summit to Commemorate the '30th anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations' in Beijing on November 22.
As reported by IndiaNarrative.com last week, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping is considering formation of a tighter bloc, which is more self-reliant for its security and economy.
With the Indo-Pacific region becoming the geopolitical centre of the world, the Southeast Asian countries have realised their importance as strategic players in the consistently fast-evolving situation.
Realising the fast-changing scenario, Beijing is looking at the special commemorative summit to draw a blueprint to build a closer 'China-ASEAN community'.
"ASEAN is China's close neighbour and important cooperation partner. Since the establishment of dialogue relations in 1991, China and ASEAN have become each other's biggest trading partner, most dynamic cooperation partner and most substantial strategic partner," said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian in Beijing on Friday.
"China and ASEAN maintain diplomatic communication. The overall situation in the South China Sea is tranquil," he added.
The Philippines, which has been urging China to follow a rules-based approach in the South China Sea, will certainly not agree.