US President Donald Trump’s administration is stepping up its challenges to Beijing’s maritime claims in the dispute-rife South China Sea.
The national security adviser of the United States, Robert O’Brien on Monday assured the Philippines and Vietnam, countries both locked in maritime rows with China, that Washington has their backs and would fight to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open.
“Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving,” said O’Brien, on a visit to the Philippines after concluding a trip to Vietnam on Sunday.
“I think when we send that message – that peace-through-strength message – is the way to deter China. It is a way to ensure the peace,” O’Brien said.
China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own, a claim contested by several countries including Malaysia, Taiwan,the Philippines, and Indonesia.
In July, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper slammed a “catalog of bad behavior” in the South China Sea over the previous months and accused the Chinese military of having sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas development and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
The United States has long opposed China’s expansive claims, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there.
China maintains it is a force for peace in the region and sees the US presence as provocative and interference by an outsider.
O’Brien, who led the turnover in Manila of $18 million worth of precision-guided munitions, said the United States stood with the Philippines in protecting its offshore resource entitlements.
“Those resources belong to the children and grandchildren of the people here,” he said.
“They don’t belong to some other country that just because they may be bigger than the Philippines,” he said, adding: “That’s just wrong.”
His visit came more than a week after the Philippines suspended its scrapping of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States for a second time, as the treaty allies work on a long-term mutual defence arrangement.
Last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defence if attacked in the South China Sea.