The United States reaffirmed its defense commitments to the Philippines after Chinese coastguard vessels were accused of firing water cannons against Philippines resupply boats in the disputed South China Sea.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States has pledged to stand with its treaty ally, the Philippines, and warned China that any “armed attack on Philippine public vessels” in the disputed sea would invoke the U.S. mutual defense commitments.
China’s action “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,” Price said in a statement on Nov. 19.
He urged China not to interfere with the Philippines’ lawful activities in its exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines has previously condemned the actions of three Chinese coastguard vessels, which it said had blocked and fired water cannons on two of its supply boats transporting food to military personnel stationed at Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) on Nov. 16.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin filed a strong protest to the Chinese ambassador on Nov. 18 and deemed the acts of the Chinese coastguard vessels “illegal.”
“They must take heed and back off,” Locsin wrote in a statement shared on social media by the Foreign Ministry.
However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters on the same day that “two Philippine supply boats trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Jiao [Second Thomas Shoal] of China’s Nansha Qundao without China’s consent” on Nov. 16.
Second Thomas Shoal lies off western Palawan Province in the Philippines’ internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. The Philippines has occupied the shoal since 1999 after intentionally grounding a navy ship on the reef.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague dismissed Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea in 2016, in favor of the Philippines and other nations in the region. It ruled that China’s claims had no legal basis.
However, the verdict has had little impact on China’s behavior, with Beijing refusing to abide by it. The resulting territorial disputes are ongoing, with Beijing continuing to pursue its claims to vast swathes of the sea based on its so-called “nine-dash line,” which includes the reef.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have competing claims to China.
Reuters contributed to this article.