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US official tells Asean claimant countries: assert rights vs China

US official tells Asean claimant countries: assert rights vs China

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has urged all South China Sea claimant countries, including the Philippines, to take a “very public posture” and assert their sovereign rights against China’s aggressive moves in the disputed waters.

Esper also said the United States was open to revisiting and strengthening its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines “based on changes in the environment and world situation.”

Ambiguities

At a press conference with Esper on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he initially introduced the idea of revisiting the MDT which was signed by the two countries in 1951.

Lorenzana cited the ambiguities in the treaty, including a provision that indicates that an attack on “Metropolitan Philippines” would automatically trigger a military response from the United States.

Esper meanwhile reiterated the US commitment to the MDT which covers the entire Pacific region, including the South China Sea.

“It is crucial that we stand together to preserve freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea,” the US official said, adding that during the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) defense ministerial meeting in Thailand, there was a concern over China’s “excessive [territorial] claims” in the South China Sea.

‘Excessive claims’

“The general theme that I took from our formal plenary discussion is that most participants in that room are very concerned about China’s excessive claims in the region. That there is lack of compliance with international laws and norms and they are concerned about the course of tactics used by Beijing throughout the region to advance [its] own interests,” he said.

The meeting, held in Bangkok last week, was participated in by defense ministers of Asean member states as well as those of eight countries: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand and Australia.

“I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasize the importance of law,” Esper said, adding that there have been more navigation operations by the United States and other countries last year than in the past 20 years.

“The clear signal that we all stand with international laws … and we think China should abide by them, and that acting collectively is the best way to get China on the right path,” he said.