Biden Warns China Against “Any Attack” on Philippine Vessels


The Maritime Executive


On Thursday, as the White House kicked off a three-way defense summit with the leaders of Japan and the Philippines, President Joe Biden warned China that “any attack” on Philippine vessels in the contested waters of the South China Sea could trigger the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty-  and draw the United States into conflict with China.

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own, including areas located hundreds of nautical miles from the Chinese mainland. The extralegal claims overlap a large swath of the Philippines’ western exclusive economic zone, including reefs and land features like Second Thomas Shoal, where the Armed Forces of the Philippines maintains a rusting outpost with a few dozen soldiers.

Though this outpost is a fraction of the size of China’s giant artificial islands in the Spratly chain, Beijing demands that the Philippine base be removed, and the China Coast Guard intercepts every Philippine resupply convoy to Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese rules of engagement have expanded to include water cannons and light contact, and multiple Philippine personnel were injured in the last two convoy attempts.

So far, the Philippines has not invoked its treaty right to request American military assistance, but the Biden administration has repeatedly warned China that it is running the risk of American involvement.

“The United States defense commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad. They’re ironclad,” Biden said Thursday. “As I said before, any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty.”

Biden’s remarks were delivered at a joint press conference with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who are in Washington for a first-of-a-kind defense summit. While the summit is not explicitly aimed at China, both the Philippines and Japan have serious maritime sovereignty disputes with Beijing, and China is the United States’ primary strategic competitor.

“The international order that the U.S. worked for generations to build is facing new challenges, challenges from those with values and principles very different from ours,” said Japan’s Kishida on Thursday, speaking in an address to Congress. “Without the presence of the United States, how long before the Indo-Pacific would face even harsher realities?”

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