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Ambassador MaryKay Carlson's Remarks at the Stratbase Event on the 7th Year of the Arbitral Victory

Remarks at the Stratbase Event on the 7th Year of the Arbitral Victory

July 12, 2023

(As Prepared)

Strengthening the U.S.-Philippine Alliance in the Age of Uncertainty

Good afternoon!  It is a pleasure to be here with Stratbase—a great partner of the U.S. Embassy—and this distinguished group to discuss the U.S.-Philippine Alliance as part of the commemoration to mark the seven-year anniversary of the Philippines’ victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

There is another anniversary that the United States and the Philippines are celebrating this year, the 75th Anniversary of the Fulbright Program, which is the flagship international scholarship program sponsored by the U.S. government.  It was established by Senator J. William Fulbright and the United States Congress, with an ambitious goal—to increase mutual understanding and support friendly, peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.  The Fulbright scholarship program in the Philippines has the distinction of being the longest continuously running Fulbright program in the world—a testament to the strong and enduring ties between our countries.

What is the connection between these two anniversaries, you might ask.  Well, let me read you a quote from Senator Fulbright, who was the longest-serving chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and by coincidence, a native son of my home state of Arkansas.  Senator Fulbright said, and I quote, “International law provides us with stability and order, and a means of predicting the behavior of those with whom we have reciprocal legal obligations.”  End quote.

International law draws from centuries of agreements and standards of conduct governing relations between sovereign states.  It underpins the rules-based international order—a system that benefits all nations, small, medium, or large.  Eight years ago this month, on July 7, 2015, the great Philippine diplomat, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario, whose legacy we honor today, addressed a distinguished panel of jurists in the Philippines-China Law of the Sea Convention arbitration, where he cited “the equalizing power of international law.”  International law, he said, “allows the weak to challenge the powerful on an equal footing, confident in the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.”  Like the Philippines, the United States believes that all countries, large and small, should play by the same rules, and that large countries should not be allowed to bully smaller ones.

The 2016 arbitral ruling which Secretary Del Rosario championed emanates from the rules-based international order that has provided peace, stability, and prosperity for our nations for decades.  The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, whose provisions the arbitral tribunal applied and vindicated, is fundamental to the peaceful and predictable use of the world’s oceans.  I’m sure that I don’t need to explain to this audience that peace and stability in the South China Sea are vital to the entire world, including to the global economy.  We have a strategic interest in upholding the rights of all countries in the maritime domain, including the rights of South China Sea claimants to exercise their sovereign rights and jurisdiction in their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, and of all users of the sea to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.

The South China Sea has become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with total annual trade flowing through the South China Sea estimated to be more than three trillion U.S. dollars.  The South China Sea basin is estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, at least some of which is near Palawan.  More than half of the globe’s oil tankers and other raw materials pass through the South China Sea.  The South China Sea also accounts for 12 percent of the global fish catch, which is estimated to generate $100 billion annually or, 5.5 trillion pesos, and which supports the livelihoods of 3.7 million people and the dietary requirements of millions more.  The South China Sea is a key thoroughfare for undersea cables and is therefore pivotal for the continued secure flow of data.  Clearly, the South China Sea matters to all of us.

With the 2016 Arbitral Ruling, the Philippines secured a final and legally binding decision that validates the country’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf, in a ruling that found the PRC’s maritime claims and actions to enforce those claims in the South China Sea were inconsistent with international law.

In support of the Tribunal’s 2016 decision, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, “The United States and our Indo-Pacific allies and partners are committed to preserving a system where goods, ideas, and people flow freely across land, sky, cyberspace, and the open seas.”  We applaud the tribunal’s decision that the PRC’s “nine dash line” maritime claims are unlawful, rejecting the PRC’s putative claim to so-called historic rights in the South China Sea as well as its claims to maritime entitlements based on PRC-designated island groups.  With the arbitral ruling, international law won out, protecting a nation’s sovereign and economic rights, just as Senator Fulbright said.

In terms of U.S. policy regarding this vitally important region, I want to reiterate that the United States calls for claimants to resolve territorial and maritime claims peacefully and in accordance with international law.  With respect to maritime claims, we have consistently maintained that all South China Sea claimants should comport claims with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

So, what is the United States doing to protect this critical maritime area?  I would like to highlight three key lines of effort that I think describe well U.S. policy in the South China Sea.  First, our diplomacy.  Together with likeminded partners like the Philippines, we are promoting respect for international law and the rules-based order, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded commerce, and the need for peaceful settlement of disputes.

Second, our maritime capacity-building programs.  We support maritime capacity-building programs for the region’s militaries and maritime law enforcement agencies, including a robust array of activities with the Philippines.  These programs enhance countries’ maritime domain awareness and improve their ability to patrol their claims—actions which we believe further promote peace and stability.

And, third and finally, I want to highlight our own operations conducted by the U.S. military, including freedom of navigation operations and routine presence operations, which demonstrate that all countries have the right to fly, sail, and operate anywhere that international law allows.  And we’ve been doing just that in the South China Sea and around the world on a daily basis for many years.

In this context, I’d like to share some thoughts on the key role played by the vitally important U.S.-Philippine relationship in preserving an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, and prosperous.  I was asked, specifically, to talk about “Strengthening the U.S.-Philippine Alliance in the Age of Uncertainty.”

One of the ways the United States and the Philippines strengthen our alliance is by placing a premium on sustaining an international system based on international law.   Our focus on international law is reflected in our foreign policies and can be seen in our enduring commitment to the U.S.-Philippine Alliance, based on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.  We share a common vision for a region governed by the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations.  These shared values, with their echoes in the United Nations Charter, keep our Alliance vibrant and meaningful even after seven decades.

The Philippines is our oldest treaty ally in East Asia.  But age has not dimmed the vitality of our relationship.  To this day, the ironclad U.S.-Philippine Alliance provides a strong framework for how we work together to address common threats.  It remains a bulwark in our regional security network—in a world beset by many uncertainties, our commitment to the U.S.-Philippine alliance is not one of them!

When we look at Southeast Asia, from geography to demographics to the economy, we see that what happens in the Philippines is critical to what happens in the Indo-Pacific and the world.   Unfortunately, in the past few years we have seen increasing threats to the region.  These include challenges to the rules-based international order via provocations in the South China Sea.  In February, for example, the Chinese Coast Guard used a laser device against the crew of a Philippines Coast Guard vessel.  And two months later, a China Coast Guard ship then blocked a Philippine patrol vessel with a group of journalists onboard, in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal.  Just a few weeks ago, the Philippine Coast Guard reported an unsafe maneuver conducted by a China Coast Guard vessel.  Such provocations, in addition to threatening freedom of navigation and overflight, have other consequences, including increased environmental degradation, reduced energy security, and a less stable investment climate, all of which directly and negatively affect lives and livelihoods.

To better respond to the full range of shared challenges—including natural disasters—in the Philippines and across the Indo-Pacific region, the United States and the Philippines announced earlier this year our plans to accelerate the implementation of projects under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, and to designate four new locations.  We expect to allocate more than $107 million, or roughly five-and-a-half billion pesos, in infrastructure investments at EDCA sites by the end of this fiscal year.  The EDCA enhancements provide a means for force modernization for the Philippines, and they also improve our combined forces’ interoperability.  Under the agreement, U.S. forces may access EDCA locations in the Philippines on a rotational basis for security cooperation exercises, joint and combined military training activities, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities, and other mutually-agreed-upon activities.  I want to underscore here that the goal of EDCA is to strengthen the U.S.-Philippine Alliance, which stands on its own and is not focused on any single threat, country, or issue. 

The United States has awarded the vast majority of contracts supporting EDCA construction to Philippine companies, generating economic growth in local Philippine communities and building lasting friendships between the United States and Philippines.  Current active projects employ five Philippine contracting companies and scores of Filipino workers. 

The projects supported by EDCA funding also have a positive economic knock-on effect at the local level, as growth in direct employment means more indirect employment and business growth for those companies—especially small-scale enterprises—providing services nearby.  The United States, led by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is consulting local governments and communities near EDCA locations on potential community-based activities, including biodiversity conservation, and energy security. 

Another way we are strengthening the U.S.-Philippine Alliance is through a robust series of military engagements and activities, including the largest-ever iteration of our premier bilateral military exercise, Balikatan, which this year saw over 17,000 U.S. and Filipino troops exercising together, and also involved some 100 Australian Defense Force personnel, and observers from 11 other countries. 

During President Marcos’s trip to Washington D.C., we also announced the establishment of our first-ever Bilateral Defense Guidelines.  The publication of these guidelines may seem technical, but it is in fact a significant step in making sure our alliance is able to meet 21st century security threats.  I like to think of these guidelines as a sort of “user’s manual” for our seven-decade-old Mutual Defense Treaty, fostering a common understanding of our respective roles and responsibilities and identifying priority areas for defense cooperation.  If the Mutual Defense Treaty is the “why” that defines our Alliance, the Bilateral Defense Guidelines seek to explain the “how,” advancing our efforts to operationalize our commitments. 

In addition to being steadfast friends and ironclad Allies, the United States and the Philippines are also committed economic partners.  The Arbitral ruling is an essential piece of that partnership, too, as it provides the legal underpinnings for trade, investment, and all manner of economic activity.  The Philippines has the right to fully leverage its resources in pursuit of economic growth and prosperity.   

As President Marcos has said, economic security is national security.  The threat of IUU fishing and environmental degradation are two development challenges the United States and the Philippines are addressing together, as partners.  For the past 60 years, the U.S. government, through USAID, has worked with the Philippine government and local organizations to achieve shared development goals.   

Since 1961, USAID has invested nearly 290 billion pesos to support Philippine development priorities.  USAID actively works with the Philippines to fight IUU fishing, protect the environment, and respond to the effects of climate change.  For example, with USAID’s support, more than 600 women fish farmers in Palawan are applying improved techniques to collect and process fish.  This work is generating substantial, sustainable income, providing them hope for a better tomorrow, and preserving the fragile ecosystem in the South China Sea for future generations.   

We are committed to expanding trade and investment between our two countries to strengthen our economies.  The United States is already the Philippines largest export market, and among the country’s largest investors.  These commercial ties have created hundreds of thousands of Filipino jobs.  Bilateral trade has hit records the past two years, and we expect to reach a new record this year.  American companies are among the Philippines’ largest and oldest investors, private employers, and taxpayers.  Our companies create wealth and jobs, but also contribute other long-term benefits—such as workforce training and technology transfer. 

An important outcome of our Presidents’ meeting in Washington in early May was the announcement by President Biden of the first-of-its-kind Presidential Trade and Investment Mission that he plans to dispatch to the Philippines.  Led by the U.S. Department of Commerce, this mission will focus on priority sectors such as the Philippines’ innovation economy, clean energy transition, critical minerals, and agriculture and food security.        

What makes our Alliance and economic and development partnership work?  Our people-to-people ties.  It is clear that the positive tone in our friendship is set at the very top.   We were honored to hear President Marcos say that he cannot imagine the Philippines’ future without a close bond with the United States.  America feels the same about the Philippines.   

U.S.-Philippine people-to-people ties have flourished thanks to programs like the Fulbright scholarships.  But government-sponsored programs are just the tip of the iceberg.  Every year, more than 3,000 Filipinos head to the United States to study at some of the world’s leading colleges and universities—including law schools.  The friendships among the peoples of our nations, the free flow of ideas, and the value we place on democracy and rule of law—this is what undergirds the U.S.-Philippine Alliance, what keeps it strong and resilient. 

Ultimately, our Alliance is guided by our enduring commitment to democratic values.  Our shared reverence for the rule of law is why we continue to strive together for peace, stability, and prosperity in the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific, and beyond.  And it is why we take time to commemorate the Arbitral ruling—a victory for the rules-based international order that benefits all nations equally, regardless of size.      

I want to thank Stratbase and Dindo again for inviting me to speak to you today.  I am confident the efforts we undertake together will continue to strengthen the U.S.-Philippine relationship as friends, partners, and allies.