December 2, 2022

(UPDATE) WASHINGTON: A senior United States Department of State official said Washington will oppose any attempt to block US access to the South China Sea.

“We expect to be in the South China Sea as we have been,” Amy Archibald, State Department director of the Office of the Maritime Southeast Asia, told visiting Filipino journalists on Wednesday.

Tension has been building in the strategic waterway, which is the subject of overlapping claims by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The Spratly island chain in the South China Sea is believed to be rich in oil and mineral deposits.

Archibald said the Code of Conduct being drafted to govern activities in the South China Sea “would be important if it does lead to the international rules-based system that allows a free and open and prosperous Pacific.”

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“And we will definitely oppose any effort not to include us,” she stressed.

Archibald said the US does not want to see “a Code of Conduct that will be used to exclude important regional partners.”

China has long maintained that practically all of the South China Sea is part of its territory, based on the “nine-day line” concept.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines after it challenged China’s claim on the disputed waters.

China refuses to accept the ruling.

In a separate interview, Greg Poling, senior fellow and director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Nobody’s going to accept Chinese restrictions on lawful activities in international waters.”

Archibald said that the US being a Pacific nation itself has “a commitment to a free and open Pacific…. And to extent a code of conduct can help us with those objectives.”

“I think we prosper when we have international norms and stability and so we are looking for a code of conduct that would essentially promote international rules-based order in the maritime environment,” she said.

Asked about China’s refusal to recognize the arbitral ruling, Archibald replied: “It depends on what the text looks like. I understand that’s China’s position, but we have a different one.”

A senior US defense official, in a separate interview, said Washington and Manila are negotiating to add five more sites for the implementation of their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Asked if such a move is related to the US commitment to ensuring sovereignty in the South China Sea, the official, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that he not be identified, said, “I think they are very much related to our commitment to standing beside the Philippine as a treaty ally. So, I would say that that is broader than the South China Sea.”

“But it is ensuring that we are able to support the Philippines, work alongside the Philippines in responding to a range of challenges including as I mentioned, any kind of disaster or other problems in the Philippines that we would want to offer support for,” the official said.

Archibald said US-Philippine relations “are in a very positive moment…. The Biden administration has already had frequent engagements with the new Marcos team at a number of levels.”

“I think the range of engagements that we’ve seen between the two administrations reflects broadly the commitment of the United States has to its alliance with the Philippines which is something that endures across the Biden administration that is bipartisan and is longstanding,” she said.