Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new policy on the South China Sea last week declaring the United States will defend the Philippines from an attack by China over a years-long island dispute.
The policy shift was announced by Pompeo in Manila on Friday. The secretary told reporters China's island-building threatened both U.S. and Philippine sovereignty, security, and economic livelihood.
"As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty," Pompeo said after a meeting with Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin.
The treaty article states that an armed attack in the "Pacific area" on either party would lead to action in response.
Until the declaration, the United States had not made clear the South China Sea was considered legally part of the Pacific under the defense treaty.
The Obama administration adopted conciliatory policies toward China and took few actions to block China's attempts to take over the sea. By contrast, Obama officials insisted Washington did not take sides in the regional island dispute.
The Obama administration also refused to help Manila when China in 2012 sent warships to the Spratlys and took over Scarborough Shoal.
The extension of the treaty to the South China Sea is part of Trump administration policies aimed at providing greater support to regional states concerned over growing Chinese military hegemony.
China has claimed 90 percent of the South China Sea as its maritime territory despite a ruling by an international court rejecting the claim as illegal.
Since the mid-2010s, China has reclaimed 3,200 acres of islands in the Spratlys, near Philippines, and the Paracels, near Vietnam. Both states are opposing the Chinese island claims.
China then began building military facilities on the new islands, including aircraft hangers and other facilities.
By April 2018, China had deployed advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles on one island in the Paracels and three in the Spratlys.
The militarization followed a promise from Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 that the islands would not be militarized.
Locsin, the Foreign Minister, said at the press conference with Pompeo that he views the American defense commitment is sincere. "They will respond, depending on the circumstances, but we are very assured," he said. "We are very confident that the United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and the words of President Trump to our president, ‘We have your back,'" he said.
Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, stated last year that China's buildup of military forces in the sea has resulted in a near takeover of the strategic waterway.
Michael Collins, deputy assistant CIA director of the East Asia mission center, has called Beijing's expansive island claims "the Crimea of the East," a reference to Russia's 2014 takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
The sea is used to transport an estimated $5 trillion in international trade annually.
The new message of military support for defending Philippine island claims was also relayed to the country's president, Rodrigo Duterte, Pompeo said.
"Our commitments under the treaty are clear," he said. "Our obligations are real, and the South China Sea is certainly part of an important body of water for freedom of navigation."
Pompeo added the Trump administration is committed to preventing China from blockading the sea. "The whole world understands that the Trump administration has made a true commitment to making sure that these seas remain open for the security of the countries in the region and for the world, open for commercial transit as well," he said.
The United States also is supporting all states in the region to make sure the vital sea lanes of the South China Sea remain free and open waters, he said.
An administration official said the new declaration is a good first step. The United States, however, is continuing to press the Manila government to do more to bolster its defenses in the region and to assist the United States by increasing military access and basing.
The official said the Pompeo declaration is different than several other declarations by U.S. officials of defense treaty obligations regarding U.S. forces helping defend Japan's Senkaku Islands against a Chinese attack.
Japan administers the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and is prepared to defend them in the face of frequent Chinese naval and air incursions near the islands.
In addition to China, Vietnam, and Philippines, the South China Sea islands are claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.
As part of the tougher policy toward China, Navy warships conducted more than a dozen freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in the past two years. The operations involve Navy warships sailing through the waters and sometimes close to disputed islands.
Chinese warships have challenged the operations by sailing close to the Navy ships and demanding the ships leave the area.
U.S. surveillance aircraft also make regular flights over the sea.
In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang accused the United States of fueling disputes by the comment. Lu said the South China Sea is "generally stable and sound" and regional states have held talks aimed at upholding regional peace and stability through a Beijing-drafted code of conduct.
"If non-regional countries, for example the U.S., truly wish for peace, tranquility and wellbeing for people in the region, they should stay away from stirring up troubles," Liu said March 1.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said Pompeo's declaration is a "dramatic and welcome change" from the Obama administration.
"What is different is this administration's effort to re-establish the credibility of the U.S. with the Republic of the Philippines and within the region after a disastrous performance by the previous administration at Scarborough Shoal in 2012," he said.
From April to June 2012 the State Department failed to support its Philippines ally and ignored a request from then-President Benigno Aquino to invoke the defense treaty in response to China sending warships to take control of the shoal, he said.
Scarborough, located about 150 miles east of the Philippines, has been controlled by China since then.
Fanell called the failure to defend Philippines over the shoal "the worst U.S. foreign policy disaster since the departure of Marine Corps helicopters flying off from the roof tops of our embassy in Saigon in 1975."
"Secretary of State Pompeo's statement is a welcome reconfirmation of commitment to our treaty ally and to the region that the United States is both an ally that can be counted on in the Indo-Pacific," he said.
Davidson, the Pacific forces commander, said in recent Senate testimony that China's maritime claims in the South China Sea "are contrary to international law and pose a substantial long-term threat to the rules-based international order."
The commander also said the Chinese anti-aircraft missiles pose a danger to both military and civilian aircraft.
On Philippines, Davidson said Chinese coast guard vessels "regularly harass and intimidate fishing vessels from our treaty ally, the Philippines, operating near Scarborough Reef, as well as the fishing fleets of other regional nations."
China carried out naval, air force, and missile exercises in the South China Sea last month, including missile defense drills involving the air defense weapon now fielded on disputed islands, according to a report from the region.
The South China Morning Post reported that the People's Liberation Army would like to permanently deploy HQ-9 anti-aircraft and YJ anti-ship missiles on Woody Island in the Parcels.