US, China spar over O’Brien’s remarks on South China Sea

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THE United States is looking for a longer term for its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the Philippines, even as it gave assurances that its military will remain in the Indo-Pacific region after the end of the Trump administration as it checks China and its aggressive behavior, prompting an angry retort from Beijing’s embassy in Manila.

National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien said the US wants to have a longer period for its security agreement with Manila, which the latter had just extended for another six months after moving for its termination in February this year.

O’Brien was in Manila on Monday for a ceremonial turnover to officials led by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. of some $18 million worth of precision guided munitions for the Philippine military’s campaign against Islamic extremists in Mindanao.

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in the Philippines on Tuesday scored the United States for what it deemed interference in the affairs of Asian countries, pointing out that the US has not even recognized the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

The Chinese embassy statement, attributed to its spokesperson, denounced the statement of O’Brien as “full of Cold War mentality and wantonly incite confrontation.”

At Monday’s ceremonial turnover to Secretary Locsin, O’Brien told the DFA chief these are meant to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) fight the terrorists in Southern Philippines “imposed by Isis [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] in East Asia.

O’Brien’s presence in the country also afforded him access to a host of Filipino officials, including Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Locsin, where wide-ranging issues were taken, including the VFA.

“We were grateful to hear again the extension of the suspension of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines for six months, and we look forward to that being turned into a longer-term agreement,” O’Brien said in a telephonic briefing later in the afternoon with regional journalists.

“We also discussed our mutual, regional strategic issues and goals, including a free and open Indo-Pacific, especially as it relates to the South China Sea,” he added.

President Trump’s top security aide said the focus of his discussion in talks with officials was the common purpose of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a “commitment to sovereignty of the countries” in Indo-Pacific, “especially those that border the South China Sea,” wherein he reiterated US support.

“A commitment on behalf of America to support our allies in Asean and our friends and partners in the region.  The commitment is we will stand behind them as they promote international law and the rule of law where it comes to the South China Sea,” O’Brien said.

The national security advisor said states have the sole rights to resources within their exclusive economic zones.

“We are well beyond the days of imperialism where a country, because it is big or mighty, can simply take the patrimony of a smaller country because it has the might to do so.  And, what I’ve said consistently in Vietnam and the Philippines—and I think it has resonated with the leadership in both places—is that the fishing rights, the mineral rights, the oil and gas rights that are in the EEZs of the various Asean countries belong to the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those countries,” O’Brien said.

“And they shouldn’t just be seized by a neighbor that happens to be bigger or stronger or richer or has a more powerful military,” he added, apparently alluding to China.

‘We’re here, not leaving’

“So, we’re here.  We’ve got the back of our partners and our allies, especially our treaty allies like the Philippines. And that was a common discussion that we had with the leadership of both Vietnam and the Philippines,” said the US official, who had also met with Vietnamese officials before flying to the Philippines.

He said the US will not leave and will continue to maintain its presence in the Indo-Pacific region amid political developments in America, and it will do even after the end of Trump’s term.

“That is one of the reasons I am here in the region: to convey American commitment to our treaty partners, to our allies, to our partners. The United States is a Pacific power.  We have a long Pacific coastline, like many, many of the countries from where folks on this call hail from.

We are also a major Pacific power and we have long-term commitments here,” he said.

“We’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving.  We’re not going to be pushed out of the Indo-Pacific region.  We’re going to fight for a free and open Indo-Pacific region with all of our friends and partners.  And I think when we send that message —that peace-throug-strength message—is the way to deter China,” he added.

US shunned Unclos

The Chinese embassy said the US itself refused to join the Unclos, but it keeps talking about the UN body, “and abused its provisions everywhere, infringing upon the maritime rights and interests of other countries.

“The US is not a party to the SCS dispute, but it frequently sends warships and planes to the SCS on numerous occasions for military provocations, goes as far as using the electronic codes of civil aviation planes of the Philippines and other regional countries to carry out espionage flights in the SCS.”

The Chinese embassy said O’Brien had made some unreasonable remarks on the SCS, Hong Kong and Taiwan issues during his visit to the Philippines.

“He [O’Brien] blatantly accused China on no ground, grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, deliberately exaggerated regional tensions and attempted to sow discord between China and the Philippines.”

He said O’Brien’s visit to this region “is not to promote regional peace and stability, but to create chaos in the region in order to seek selfish interests of the US.”

“We urge the US side to respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the SCS, respect the joint efforts of China and Asean countries for maintaining a peaceful and stable South China Sea and stop interfering and inciting confrontation in the SCS.”

Image credits: AP/Bullit Marquez



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