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Philippines can invoke Mutual Defense Treaty if sea attacks kill soldier, sailor- US admiral

U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 23, 2021. (SASC video screenshot)
March 30, 2024

The Philippines can invoke the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) if a sailor or a member of its military is killed as China continues “to execute belligerent, dangerous and aggressive” actions against Filipino troops and fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, according to a US military official.

Speaking at a US House committee briefing last week, Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) chief Adm. John Aquilino said China has “become increasingly aggressive and emboldened” in the West Philippine Sea.

Seven Philippine Navy personnel were injured in separate water cannon incidents by China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels against Philippine resupply boats on its way to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal this month.

Aquilino said Beijing’s recent aggressiveness against Filipino troops and civilians in the West Philippine Sea “is concerning to me.”

‘A bad place’

He warned that the Philippines was a “really critical hot spot right now that could end up in a bad place” due to China’s illegal actions in the West Philippine Sea.

“I would hope that the international community’s condemnation of those actions is enough to get the Chinese to back off. But if it doesn’t, it could go in a bad place,” he warned. “So I’m concerned about where it can go.”

“He said the Philippines, a longtime military and treaty ally of the United States, could invoke the MDT if any attack against Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea would result in death.”

“The Philippines, if a sailor or soldier, or one of their members were killed, could invoke Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” he told US lawmakers during the briefing. “And that would put our policy decision makers in a place that would require really tough choices.”

Fishing rights

“The Philippines can use those,” he said.

Under the MDT, Manila and Washington agreed to come to each other’s aid in case of an armed attack on a public vessel, troops or an airship.

Aquilino said “there are procedures in place to avoid dangerous and unsafe accidents” at sea, citing the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

However, he pointed out that China has continued “to execute belligerent, dangerous and aggressive activity to prevent Filipino fishermen from executing their rights inside their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) at Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal and they have also prevented the resupply of the Philippine forces at Sierra Madre,” referring to the grounded warship in Ayungin that serves as a lookout for the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.

“Those are not based on legality,” he said.

Medals for Navy personnel

The July 2016 tribunal, he added, has ruled that China has no legal claim to the area of Ayungin “yet they continue to drive a perception” that it is Chinese territory.

Ayungin, called by the Chinese as Ren’ai Jiao, is an underwater feature about 195 kilometers off Palawan province, which is well within Manila’s 370-km EEZ.

Aquilino said China’s “unprecedented military buildup” and growing aggressions have continued “to destabilize the region.”

The recent Chinese aggression, however, will not deter the Philippines in conducting its rotation and resupply (Rore) operations to troops at the grounded Sierra Madre, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr.

“What you are doing here has strategic implications. The whole world is watching us so let us continue with our determination and resolve to accomplish our mission and the conduct of our Rore operations,” he told the troops at the Western Command in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, during his visit on Tuesday.

“Definitely, our Rore mission will continue,” he said. “It is our duty to continue bringing supplies to them to sustain them in their operations and to make sure that their morale, their welfare [are] taken care of.”

During his visit, Brawner, who was accompanied by Philippine Coast Guard commandant Adm. Ronnie Gil Gavan, checked on the condition of the three Navy personnel who were injured after Chinese vessels fired water cannons at a Philippine resupply boat in the West Philippine Sea on March 23.

He also conferred medals on the Navy personnel who were part of the military’s resupply missions, including those who were injured during the previous missions.

New resupply tactics

On March 5, four Navy personnel onboard a Philippine resupply boat were also injured after a CCG vessel made “dangerous blocking maneuvers” and fired water cannon at the civilian ship.

Brawner said the military would make operational “adjustments” in the next resupply mission following the water cannon incidents, which he did not disclose.

The AFP chief said he was concerned about the “amount of aggressiveness that was shown during the latest resupply mission” by Chinese forces.

Earlier, Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos said the military would devise new tactics for its resupply missions to Ayungin due to the Chinese ship’s persistent blockade and dangerous maneuvers.


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