VISITING US Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday urged Southeast Asian nations to stand together to pressure China into abiding by international laws in connection with the dragging South China Sea territorial dispute.
In a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City after a meeting with his Filipino counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, Esper said acting together is the way to get China to the right direction.
Esper and Lorenzana attended last week’s ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus held in Bangkok.
“Most participants in that room are very concerned about China’s excessive claims in the region, that there is lack of compliance (by China) with international laws and norms,” said Esper.
Esperon said the participants were likewise concerned “about the course and tactics used by Beijing throughout the region to advance their own interests.”
China has been aggressive in its claim in the past years and has even conducted land reclamation activities in some of the reefs it is occupying. The reefs are now installed with advance weapon systems.
Aside from China and the Philippines, also claiming parts of the South China sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
“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,” said Esper.
Esper said US has been conducting freedom of navigation operations in the Indo Pacific region to send the message to China to obey international rules and laws.
“We have more freedom of navigation operations in past year or so than we have in the previous 20 plus years,” he said.
“We think China should abide by them as well and that acting collectively is the best way to send that message to get China to the right path,” said Esper.
Esper reiterated that “the United States rejects attempt by any nation to use coercion intimidation to advance its national interests at the expense of others.”
On Philippine efforts to revise the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, Esper said: “It’s always good to look at these things from time to time, review and clarify and strengthen it based on changes in the environment and world situation.”
Lorenzana earlier proposed the revision of the MDT to prevent the Philippines from getting involved in a military conflict between US and China.
During the press conference, Lorenzana acknowledged proposing the MDT revision. “The situation then (in the 1950s) compared to now is different… I don’t know what will be the outcome, it will be a joint cooperative endeavor,” he said.
Esper said he discussed with Lorenzana during their meeting a wide range of issues, including efforts to fight terrorism. He said US and Philippine cooperation “continues to successfully counter ISIS affiliates and other violent extremist organizations threatening the Philippines.”
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Armed forces of the Philippines in fighting terrorism. The United States remains committed to supporting the Philippines’ continued efforts to deny terrorist groups a safe haven in the region,” added Esper.
Esper said he and Lorenzana also discussed ways to strengthen defense cooperation between the two countries.
He vowed the US will continue to support the Philippine military’s modernization efforts and “to improve maritime security in domain awareness.”