Philippines’ Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana scorned that explanation, noting that the weather had been fine throughout most of the period. He also challenged the official status of the ships as fishing vessels, charging that they were manned by armed militias. “The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas) in the West Philippine Sea,” Lorenzana said in a statement, using Manila’s name for the South China Sea. The Philippines government also responded to the presence of the ships by sending fighter planes to shadow the fleet.
The United States has quickly injected itself into the dispute. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphatically took Manila’s side in a statement on Twitter. “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitson Reef,” he stated, emphasizing that. “We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules‐based international order.” Antiwar.com analyst Dave DeCamp notes that in an earlier telephone call with Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Blinken emphasized Washington’s solidarity with its longtime treaty ally, including on the South China Sea territorial disputes. Indeed, he “made it clear that any incident between the Philippines and Beijing in the South China Sea could bring the US into war. According to a readout of the call, Blinken ‘stressed the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations, and its clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.’” One regional observer, Mark J. Valencia, a scholar at the National Institute of South China Sea Studies in Haikow, China, accuses the Biden administration of outdoing even its predecessor in terms of “bluff and bluster” regarding the South China Sea.
The Biden administration’s position certainly is unwise and potentially dangerous. Apparently confident of U.S. military backing, the Philippines government is taking a tough stance against its much larger, more powerful neighbor. Aides to President Rodrigo Duterte warned Beijing on April 5 that the continued presence of PRC ships at Whitsun Reef would damage bilateral ties and even lead to “unwanted hostilities.” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque bluntly told a news conference: “We will not give up even a single inch of our national territory or our exclusive economic zone (EEZ).” It is unlikely that a tiny country like the Philippines would be so bold if it did not assume that it had the powerful US military in its corner. Washington is giving Manila every reason to make that assumption. The United States has now deployed an aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea as tangible evidence of support for its ally.
Flirting with an armed clash with China would be imprudent even if the United States had significant interests at stake in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and the PRC. But the involvement of genuine American interests in that quarrel is minimal at most.