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US Secretary of State Backs Philippines in South China Sea Dispute

  • Simone Orendain

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures during her townhall meeting and interview with Filipino scholars in Manila, Nov. 16, 2011.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures during her townhall meeting and interview with Filipino scholars in Manila, Nov. 16, 2011.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be settled using the international Law of the Seas treaty, a position that backs the Philippines in its dispute with China. During a visit to the Philippines Wednesday, Clinton expressed support for updating a defense treaty between the two nations. Simone Orendain has more from Manila.

During a visit marking the 60th anniversary of the two countries’ mutual defense treaty, Secretary Clinton said the United States remains neutral in the squabble between the Philippines and China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which is called the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines.

"We are strongly of the opinion that the disputes that the foreign secretary referred to that exist primarily in the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China should be resolved peacefully," she said. "The United States does not take a position on any territorial claim because any nation with a claim has a right to assert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion.”

She says countries should follow the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to resolve the dispute.

The Philippines says that China’s centuries-old claim of the entire South China Sea encroaches on its exclusive economic zone. The United Nations convention defines the zone as a 370 kilometer area beyond a country’s coastline. The Philippines has complained of at least seven intrusions in the past year by China into its territorial waters.

China has repeatedly said there were no intrusions and has refused to bring the issue before an international tribunal. It maintains that the matter should be settled through bilateral talks.

Although Clinton reaffirmed U.S. neutrality in the dispute, she says the defense treaty between the two countries needs updating.

"And that will require working with the Philippines to provide greater support for external defense, particularly maritime domain awareness - defensive ones - maritime boundaries. We've begun intensive consultations between our two governments to determine exactly the specifics of such an approach would be," she said.

Clinton’s office has scheduled a formal meeting on military interests between the Philippines foreign affairs and defense secretaries and their U.S. counterparts in January.

In August, the Philippines took possession of a refurbished Hamilton-class cutter. It is now the largest ship in the country’s modest naval fleet. The ship guards a major natural-gas drilling project, which is located near the disputed group of islands in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.

China has staked the entire sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims to parts of the area, which also holds some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and abundant fishing. Also, scientists believe there are large oil deposits in the region.