U.S. and Philippines seek to de-escalate after sea skirmish with China


SINGAPORE — The United States and the Philippines are seeking to de-escalate tensions with Beijing after Chinese coast guard ships forcibly boarded Philippine navy vessels in the most serious confrontation in the South China Sea in recent years, according to U.S. and Philippine officials.

The United States will hold a joint maritime exercise with the Philippines in the coming weeks as a “show of support” to a key U.S. ally, officials said. The exercise was preplanned and is not intended to escalate tensions with China, said a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command representative who, along with several other U.S. and Philippine government officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of sensitive diplomacy.

The exercise will occur in disputed waters that Manila claims as the West Philippine Sea, and could also involve other U.S. allies, such as Australia or Japan, say U.S. officials.

Though Philippine leaders have condemned China’s behavior as “aggressive” and “illegal,” they have also sought in recent days to lower the heat over the disputed waters. “We are not in the business to instigate wars,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Sunday after visiting troops on the western island of Palawan who were wounded in the skirmish against China.

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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Monday that the Philippines is being “very cautious at this juncture” about the situation at sea. “They do not seek a crisis with China. They are seeking dialogue,” Campbell said at an event hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. As for the United States, “the most important thing in this time frame is to be resolute, to be very clear publicly in our support for the Philippines,” he said.

China has recently grown more aggressive in asserting its presence over the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by six other governments.

Tensions surged last week when Chinese coast guard ships rammed and boarded Philippine navy vessels attempting to resupply the Sierra Madre, a rusted warship beached on a half-submerged reef known as the Second Thomas Shoal. The confrontation left a sailor severely injured and sparked calls for a response from the United States, which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.

Since the incident, U.S. officials at “the highest levels” have been debating an appropriate response said one official in Asia, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. “Something needs to be done,” said the official, who works on security issues. “Do we want to commit to something that could spiral out of control? That’s very much a factor at play.”

Visiting nearby Vietnam over the weekend, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink called China’s actions at Second Thomas Shoal “deeply destabilizing.”

The “level of anxiety” on this issue among countries in this region “is very high,” said a second U.S. official. “So the Chinese have miscalculated here.”

Campbell said U.S. officials have lodged diplomatic protests on the incident to the Chinese government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning asserted at a news conference Monday that Second Thomas Shoal is Chinese territory. “Our message to the Philippines is very clear: Stop the infringement activities and provocations,” she said.

Separate from the joint exercise with the United States, the Philippines will attempt another resupply mission to the Sierra Madre, potentially as soon as this week, according to U.S. and Philippine officials. And U.S. officials will be watching to see how that goes.

In a change of policy, the Philippines will now be publicly announcing the resupply missions ahead of time, said the National Maritime Council, an interagency body that Marcos Jr. convened earlier this year to manage the dispute with China.

Richard Heydarian, a senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines, called on the United States to “take steps to directly support” the resupply missions to the Sierra Madre and to declare that any lethal attack on Philippine military personnel would be grounds to trigger the mutual defense treaty. There’s a need to “restore some element of deterrence,” Heydarian said in an interview.

But any U.S. involvement in the resupply missions to the Sierra Madre would have to come at the request of the Philippines, U.S. and Filipino officials said. While the United States has provided “technical and logistical” support on previous resupply missions, Manila has deliberately not asked for the United States to join in executing these missions, said a top Philippine defense official. That’s still the policy after the recent incident at Second Thomas, said the Philippine official.

U.S. officials affirmed this. “That whole operation is meant to be a demonstration of Philippine sovereignty,” said the Indo-Pacific Command representative. “Giving that up to the U.S. is not something they want.”

Tan reported from Singapore. Nakashima reported from Washington.



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