South China Sea: US vows to stand up to Beijing as it tells allies ‘we’ve got your back’

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Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien told officials in the Philippines and Vietnam that Washington would fight to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open. The two countries are among the most vocal regional opponents against Chinese attempts to dominate the South China Sea and its disregard for boundaries outlined in international maritime law.

Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving

Robert O’Brien

Speaking in the Philippines after concluding a trip to Vietnam, Mr O’Brien said: “Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving.

“I think when we send that message – that peace-through-strength message – is the way to deter China. It is a way to ensure the peace.”

China claims 90 percent of the resource-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim parts of it.

Washington has long opposed China’s claims and regularly sends warships through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there.

Beijing insists China is a force for peace in the region and sees the US presence as provocative and interference by an outsider.

Mr O’Brien said the US stood with the Philippines in protecting its offshore resource entitlements.

He told officials: “Those resources belong to the children and grandchildren of the people here.

“They don’t belong to some other country that just because they may be bigger than the Philippines. That’s just wrong.”

His visit came after the Philippines suspended plans to scrap a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US for a second time, as the treaty allies work on a long-term mutual defence arrangement.

Earlier this month former Philippines military chief Emmanuel Bautista warned China would “seize” the islands if tensions in the volatile region boiled over into conflict.

Mr Bautista outlined key routes around the Philippines that could become strategically important if war were to break out between the US and China.

He said: “Assuming things get out of hand and result in a shooting war, China will seize the Philippines.”

Speaking to an online forum hosted by the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea, he said: “If you want to influence the South China Sea, you need to control these chokepoints.”

He said China was using “grey zone” tactics to establish a foothold in Philippine territory that they can use to fully control the South China Sea.

Mr Bautista described these “grey zone” tactics as “the period between peacetime and wartime where you employ not just military means but also economic, information and other instruments of national power, not necessarily kinetic military in nature”.

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He said: “Even as we speak, war is being fought in the grey zone.

“In information and propaganda realm, economic and other areas.”

He warned the Philippine government to be aware of Chinese non-military actions because of their security implications.

Mr Bautista said: “Many things are happening in the context of grey zone warfare, not just the influx of foreign nationals but also investments in strategic assets and strategic industries and other economic means.”

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