The Philippines' Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has for the first time openly pledged to invoke Manila's defence agreement with Washington if Beijing moves to attack Philippine vessels in the South China Sea.
In an interview with the broadcaster ANC on Wednesday, Loscin also declared that the Philippines would go ahead with its air patrols over the area despite China's rejection of such flyovers as "illegal provocations".
"They can call it illegal provocations, you can't change their minds. They already lost the arbitral award", the foreign secretary said, in an apparent reference to an international tribunal's decision in 2016 to rule against most of Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
"[But if] something happens that is beyond incursion but is in fact an attack on say a Filipino naval vessel … [that] means then I call up Washington DC", Loscin warned.
The statement comes after the Philippine Department of National Defence said in mid-July that they "strongly agree with the position of the international community that there should be a rules-based order in the South China Sea".
This was preceded by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slamming China's claims in the area in mid-July as "completely unlawful", in what prompted the Chinese Embassy in Washington to respond by saying that Beijing "firmly" opposes Pompeo's remarks.
Duterte Voices Alarm Over South China Sea Tensions
In June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern over Beijing's increasing activity in the South China Sea while the region is busy struggling with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
"We call on parties to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law", Duterte added.
In a separate development in June, the Philippines announced the reversal of its previous decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, referring to "the political and other developments in the region".
The VFA accord, which was signed in 1998 and is seen as an essential part of the two nations' Mutual Defence Treaty, stipulates the training of US military personnel, including the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard on Philippine soil.
Loscin's Wednesday interview comes amid ongoing regional tensions over South China Sea territories which apart from China are claimed by an array of countries, including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Despite having no claims to the territories, the US is also actively engaged in the dispute, sending its military vessels to the South China Sea and sparking harsh criticism from Beijing which rejects such acts as "provocations".