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PH, US defense chiefs discuss China laser incident in West Philippine Sea

Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. on Wednesday spoke with his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin III, to discuss "concerning developments" in the South China Sea.

In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said among the topics tackled was the Feb. 6 incident in Ayungin Shoal where the Chinese coast guard pointed a military grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard vessel.

"Secretary Austin underscored the United States' commitment to supporting the lawful rights and operations of the Philippines in the South China Sea, including around the Second Thomas Shoal, which the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal unequivocally ruled is a part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone," Ryder said.

The US refers to Ayungin Shoal as Second Thomas Shoal, an atoll located some 100 nautical miles off Palawan and is part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Ryder also said Austin "reiterated that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, aircraft, and public vessels, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty."

Austin also emphasized to Galvez the US' commitment to "supporting the lawful rights and operations" of the Philippines in West Philippine Sea, including Ayungin Shoal.

In July 2016, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, based on a case filed by the Philippines, junked China's nine-dash line claim covering the entire South China Sea.

The arbitration court also ruled that Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank are all within the Philippines' EEZ as provided by the UNCLOS and outlawed China's action of preventing Filipino fishermen to access Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal.

Beijing, which has refused to acknowledge the arbitral court's ruling, has denied pointing at military grade laser at the Philippine Coast Guard vessel, which it accused of intrusion.

The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against China following the laser-pointing incident.

Meanwhile, Galvez and Austin also discussed proposals to deepen operational cooperation and improve the US and the Philippines' shared security, including joint maritime activities in the South China Sea.

Austin reaffirmed the US Defense commitment to bolstering the Philippines' defense capabilities and capacity to "resist coercion as the Allies develop a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap."

They also discussed opportunities to expand security cooperation with like-minded nations like Japan that seek to uphold the rules-based international order and with a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

The two officials committed to advance an "ambitious" set of initiatives leading up to the 2+2 Ministerial in Washington, DC this year.

Also on Wednesday, Armed Forces chief General Andres Centino and US Naval Operations chief Admiral Michael Gilday met at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.

During the meeting, the two affirmed a robust military partnership between the US and the Philippines based on the Mutual Defense Treaty, including pursuing a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Aside from the upcoming joint Balikatan Exercises, they also discussed the continuation of a strong defense partnership through joint training and exercise, humanitarian and disaster relief, and counter-terrorism. —Joviland Rita/KBK/RSJ, GMA Integrated News