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US urged to take firm steps in support of Philippines amid rising South China Sea tensions

“We urge the [People’s Republic of China] to cease harassment of Philippine vessels lawfully operating in the Philippine exclusive economic zone,” the envoy added, stressing Manila’s “sovereign rights” and “freedoms of navigation” in the South China Sea for all ships.

The Philippines and the US are bound by their 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) which obligates both sides to help each other in the event of an attack on one side by an external power. Washington has said the treaty’s scope extended to the South China Sea dispute.

Political analyst Edmund Tayao, president and CEO of think tank Political Economic Elemental Researchers and Strategists, told This Week in Asia that US pronouncements had been helpful, noting they made China aware of the dire implications if it went beyond deploying “grey-zone tactics” to buttress its territorial claims.

“Still and all, doubts remain as this rhetoric is not consistent if we review statements before. It was the US that… established a partnership with China before recognising it without consulting Japan which was supposed to be its close ally during the Cold War,” Tayao said, referring to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing in 1979.

“So, the US has to do concrete actions, that is to have its presence in the region more, perhaps assisting the Philippines and other southeast Asian countries in policing the region.”

The US can signal to China its firm support of the Philippines over the South China Sea dispute without invoking the MDT, according to Tayao.

In 2022, US Vice-President Kamala Harris said Washington had a “profound stake in the future” of the region and stood ready to support Manila during her visit to Palawan, an island in the western part