The Philippine government can bank on the support of the United States to protect its international rights amid tensions stemming from issues over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said on Tuesday.
In a press conference at the Seda Abreeza Hotel in Davao, Kim underscored the need to protect international rights such as freedom of navigation and freedom of life in light of the recent maritime incident at the Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea where a Filipino fishing boat was reportedly rammed by a Chinese fishing vessel.
The 22 fishermen aboard the sunken Gem-Ver fishing boat were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen hours after the incident.
“We believe very strongly we all should protect international rights like freedom of navigation and freedom of life. This is why the US Navy has continued to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. I think it is an important reminder to all concerned including China that the US will continue to take actions to protect international rights,” Kim said.
He said the US government would continue to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and other law enforcement agencies to “build capacity,” so that these agencies could deal with these types of situations more effectively.
“I think it is more important to note that what we’re doing in general, which is to work with Philippine military and Philippine law enforcement agencies to build capacity. I am very pleased that we have such robust partnership with AFP including the Coast Guard,” he said.
On 16 July 2016, the Permanent Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, The Netherlands ruled in favor of the Philippines’s territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea, negating China’s nine-dash line claim that practically covers the whole South China Sea.
In his speech during the 121st Philippine Navy Anniversary at the National Base Heracleo Alano, Sangley Point in Cavite on Monday, President Duterte called the incident a “little maritime accident” and should not result in a war with China.
“Pero ‘yang — ‘yang nangyari diyan sa banggaan, that is a maritime incident. Huwag kayong maniwala diyan sa mga politiko na bobo na gusto papunta ‘yung — papuntahin ‘yung Navy (The collision that happened there, that is a maritime incident. Do not believe in the stupid politicians who want to send our Navy there). You do not send gray ships there…. Do not make it worse because there is a — that’s a fertile ground for…,” he said.
Duterte, who drew flak for his silence over the recent incident, defended himself by saying, “there is no investigation and there is no result. Then the only thing that we can do is to wait and give the other party the right to be heard.”
Citing US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Kim vowed the US will protect the Philippines as part of their commitments under the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty.
He said any armed attack “against the Philippine forces, Philippine aircraft, and Philippine public vessels, will trigger our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.”
“It’s a very important clarification of our commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty. And I think that clarification stands on its own. We are honestly very committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty through our alliance, which is our oldest alliance in the Pacific region,” Kim added.
Pompeo visited the Philippines from February 28 to March 1 this year.
Kim said US-Philippines relations remain strong and robust despite Duterte’s tirades against the US government.
The diplomat said it’s about time that the people looked at the developments in the relationship between the two countries.
“He (Duterte) says a lot of controversial things publicly but I think many of us focus on what is happening in the relationship and spend less time worrying about public statements and speeches. When you look at what’s happening between the US and the Philippines, our alliance remains very robust,” he said.