In a move that threatens to roil Philippine-American bilateral relations, Manila has called for a review of the long-time allies’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the bedrock of the two sides’ strategic ties.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former Philippine defence attaché in Washington, is leading the effort to revisit one of the oldest strategic alliances in Asia.
Any move to scrap the MDT could have wide-reaching implications for regional security, including in the hotly contested South China Sea, where the US and China are in an increasingly tense tussle for control of the waterway.
Manila’s surprise move was announced shortly after the Balangiga Bells, taken by US troops as war booty over a century ago, were returned to the Philippines, a gesture some saw as atonement for atrocities the US committed during its colonial rule of the nation.
Observers had thought that the symbolic return, long sought by Manila, would put relations on a firmer footing after recent slippage on various issues. Significantly, or so it seemed, then US defence chief Jim Mattis personally facilitated the bells’ handover.
President Rodrigo Duterte has taken an often antagonistic approach towards the US in pursuit of what he has termed as a more “independent” foreign policy. At the same time, his government has moved closer economically and strategically to China.
It is not immediately clear what the Philippines aims to achieve from the move, but the treaty review reflects growing frustration in Manila over a perceived fundamental ambivalence built into the bilateral alliance.
In particular, there is nothing in MDT that explicitly guarantees expedient and unconditional American support in the event of a conflict between the Philippines and other claimant states in the South China Sea, including with China.
Lorenzana has publicly criticized America for being “ambivalent” over the issue.
One of the treaty’s articles states, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
For the US, this means the need to receive congressional consent for any major military intervention undertaken on the Philippines’ behalf. The bigger question, however, concerns the precise geographical scope of the treaty.
Under the previous Barack Obama administration, the US clarified that its treaty alliance with Japan covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which are also contested by China and Taiwan.
A 1951 Security Treaty between the US and Japan declares that “United States land, air and sea forces in and about Japan… may be utilized to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East and to the security of Japan against armed attack from without.”
The same assurances are neither reflected in the Philippine-US treaty nor in Washington’s diplomatic statements, which have been made in generic terms of its “ironclad commitment” to the Philippines’ defence rather than the specific commitments made to Japan.
Obama cautioned in 2014 while in Manila against the supposed folly of going to war over a “bunch of rocks” when asked whether the US would come to the Philippines’ defence in the event of a conflict with China in the South China Sea.
Two years earlier, Washington declined to intervene militarily when the Philippines and China were locked in a months-long naval standoff over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China now controls in violation of international law.
The shoal is situated within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and could be pivotal to any Chinese move to establish an Area Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to take de facto control of the South China Sea.
Nor has the US moved to enforce a July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague decision in favour of the Philippines and against China’s expansive claims to the sea, a ruling that legally discredited China’s controversial nine-dash line map that lays claim to 90% of the waterway.
Some have also questioned the compatibility of the MDT with present geopolitical realities since the treaty was forged at the beginning of the Cold War.
“When that [treaty] was [negotiated], there was this raging Cold War. [But] [d]o we still have a Cold War today? Is it still relevant to our security? Maybe not,” Lorenzana said in a press conference in late December. Lorenzana has even raised the prospect of scrapping the treaty altogether if deemed necessary.
“Let’s see… We are going to approach this MDT, look at it in the backdrop of what’s happening in the area, in the interest of the nation, not the interest of other nations,” he added. The MDT may be terminated by either side with a year’s notice.
China-leaning elements in Manila, empowered by Duterte’s anti-Western rhetoric, will likely argue for a downgrade in bilateral relations with the US to facilitate stronger ties with Beijing, which has remained wary of the Philippine-US defence alliance.
But the review could also serve as a springboard to push America to be more forthcoming in its treaty obligations to the Philippines by upgrading the alliance to accommodate modern geopolitical risks and realities, namely the rise of China and the relative decline of America’s influence in Asia.
Under the Donald Trump administration, Washington has sought to adopt a more reassuring tone on America’s commitments to the region.
During an August visit to Manila, Randall Schriver, America’s assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said that “there should be no misunderstanding or lack of clarity on the spirit and the nature of our commitment,” because “we’ll help the Philippines respond accordingly” to any contingencies in adjacent waters.
In December, the US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim was even more reassuring, telling CNN Philippines, “I fully expect that we will come to the defence of the Philippines if any foreign nation were to attack the Philippines.”
Yet none of those statements have addressed the specifics of a potential US intervention in the event of a full-blown conflict in the South China Sea, a scenario security analysts see as increasingly possible amid recent sabre-rattling between the US and China over access to the waterway.
A poll conducted in December by the Social Weather Stations, a local pollster, showed that a majority (61%) of Filipinos are confident that Washington would come to Manila’s aid in the event of a conflict with a third country.
That would seem to indicate that the Philippine public favours maintaining or even upgrading its existing alliance with America, though it’s not clear that’s what Duterte’s government has in mind for its treaty review.