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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines could seek out the assistance of the United States, with which it has a mutual protection treaty, to guard its passions in the South China Sea, Manila’s protection office mentioned Thursday in a veiled risk amid an escalating feud with China over a contested reef.

The Philippine federal government has demanded that dozens of Chinese vessels it suspects are operated by militias to go away Whitsun Reef, which Manila statements in the most hotly contested Spratly region of the waterway. China has insisted it owns the reef and that the Chinese vessels are sheltering from tough seas.

The Philippine military has deployed coast guard and navy patrols around the spot, flown surveillance plane and produced pics of the Chinese vessels, a lot of of them arrayed facet by side whilst moored at the reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe. The standoff has sparked a heated trade in between Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

“As the problem in the West Philippine Sea evolves, we retain all our alternatives open up in controlling the condition, like leveraging our partnerships with other nations such as the United States,” Office of Countrywide Defense spokesman Arsenio Andolong reported in a assertion, utilizing the Philippine title for the South China Sea.

“We are continuously in talks with the U.S. on the matter of mutual protection,” Andolong said. “Both functions are dedicated to undertake their obligations underneath the Mutual Defense Treaty so that neither stands alone in these problems involving the two states’ inherent proper of self-defense.”

The United States has explained it would stand by the Philippines amid the dispute and accused China of applying “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations.”

Andolong welcomed remarks by U.S. Condition Office spokesperson Ned Price tag, who reiterated in a latest news briefing that an armed attack on Philippine army forces, community vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, like in the South China Sea, “will cause our obligations” below the allies’ 1951 treaty, which presents that both of those nations would help each individual other if either comes beneath attack by an additional region in the location.

Invoking the treaty, nevertheless, could be a intricate step and could be stalled by opponents from possibly aspect, including by U.S. lawmakers.

The Chinese Embassy has mentioned “it is entirely normal” for Chinese fishing vessels to fish and acquire shelter at Whitsun, which it calls Niu’e Jiao. “Nobody has the suitable to make wanton remarks on these functions,” it claimed.

Amid the standoff, Andolong claimed the Philippines will safeguard and defend its national interests “while upholding the stability and stability in the location by means of peaceful and a rules-based strategy.”

The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest, declaring the reef, which lies about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of the Philippine province of Palawan, is in just an internationally recognized offshore zone where by it has the unique appropriate to exploit fisheries, oil, gasoline and other resources.

“For each and every day of delay, the Republic of the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest,” the Division of Overseas Affairs in Manila claimed.

The Spratly chain of islands, islets and atolls are also claimed solely or partly by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. China has turned 7 disputed reefs into missile-shielded island bases in recent years, ratcheting up tensions.

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