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HOWIE SEE IT: A Stronger Gesture of Alliance

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By Atty. Howie Calleja

After attending the recent APEC summit in Bangkok, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in the Philippines for a three-day visit intended at renewing and reaffirming the U.S. defense commitment to the country through projects and initiatives via the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between our two countries, which allows US troops to use agreed locations in the Philippines for security exercises and joint military training.

Even the “optics” of visiting Palawan which puts US VP Harries on the edge of the South China Sea, where China has been building military bases – some on islands claimed by the Philippines – in one of the most outward signs of its support for the Philippines.

The Philippines occupies nine features in the Spratly chain while China occupies seven. But China, which calls the island chain the Nanshas, has built up and fortified much of its claims in the chain, including building military bases on places like Subi Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef. Quite the opposite, only one of the Philippine-controlled features even has a runway — Thitu Reef; thus, such sign of support comes as a boost to our legally acknowledged international claim (based on the 2016 international tribunal ruling, brought by the Philippines in 2013, which invalidated China’s “nine-dash line” claim) over these islands.

Historically, the Philippines used to be home to two of the US military’s largest overseas installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s. A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 remains in force, stipulating that both sides would help defend each other if either were attacked by a third party.

It is truly comforting to hear from VP Harris that “As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea. As the United States has long made clear … We support the 2016 ruling of the UN Arbitral Tribunal, which delivered a unanimous and final decision firmly rejecting China’s expansive South China Sea maritime claims. The tribunal’s decision is legally-binding, and must be respected … To all of you here today, I say: The US-Philippines alliance is strong. We are committed to you. We are committed to your success. And to all the lives and livelihoods that rely on your work”

Support for our country’s maritime claim is indeed a welcomed gesture for such collaboration is also a principled stand vis-à-vis the freedom of navigation. The Chinese “artificial” transformation of several reefs and rock outcroppings has violated UNCLOS regulations for them to regulate foreign activity in a massive claimed economic zone within a boundary called the “nine-dash line; and it is incumbent upon the Philippines and its allies to protect the right of “innocent passage,” and the freedom to transit in a non-threatening and non-disruptive manner.

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