Philippines must push for clarity in US defence treaty

opinion January 18, 2019 01:00

By Richard Heydarian
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Asia News Network

4,438 Viewed

Is it still relevant to our security? Maybe not,” Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at a press conference last month, revealing his plans to review the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT).



The surprising announcement came shortly after the return of the Balangiga bells, which was warmly welcomed by no less than President Duterte, who had demanded their repatriation. After all, many expected a thaw in frayed bilateral relations, which have been undermined by disagreements over human rights and democracy concerns as well as divergent approaches to dealing with the China challenge in the West Philippine Sea.

Lorenzana raised the stakes by making it clear that scrapping the treaty altogether is an option on the table. “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 said. It’s not really clear what the exact intent is behind calling for the MDT review, but it clearly reflects lingering anxieties in the Philippines vis-a-vis the precise coordinates of American security commitments.

There are two fundamental concerns with the MDT, namely lack of temporal automaticity as well as clarity of spatial scope. According to the treaty, each party “would act to meet the common dangers [in their area of jurisdiction] in accordance with its constitutional processes”. This means that in the event of a conflict between the Philippines and a third party, the US government will still have to rely on the deliberation and approval of the US Congress, which has a say on the war powers of the country’s presidency. 

If the conflict is a major one, and American public opinion is divided on the issue, it’s unlikely that any American president would try to completely bypass the Congress even if he/she sees the need for expedient intervention.

As for the geographical scope of the treaty, it makes mention of “an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific…” Yet, it’s far from clear whether “island territories” include Scarborough Shoal and other claimed and controlled Philippine land features in the West Philippine Sea. Since the 1970s, Washington has equivocated on this issue.

As former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger argued, “[Philippine] occupation could hardly be termed uncontested in the face of claims and protests of Chinese and Vietnamese.”

Crucially, the Richard Nixon administration made it clear that the “MDT may apply in event of [an] attack on [Philippine] forces deployed to third countries,” which “is fundamentally different from a case where deployment is for purpose of enlarging Philippine territory”.

Thus, this could mean that Washington is only willing to intervene if Philippine troops and vessels operating in the contested area come under attack.

Unanswered questions

This, however, raises questions on the coercive occupation of Philippine-claimed land features, where Filipino troops are either absent or were driven away without a firefight.

In more concrete terms, does the treaty cover the Scarborough Shoal? What if China managed to completely cut off the supply lines of our troops in Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin) and the Kalayaan Group of Islands, driving them away without any actual armed conflict?

This is particularly relevant in light of China’s rapid militarisation of reclaimed islands, laying down the foundation for an effective imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone and other forms of exclusionary measures in the area, with potentially dire consequences for the supply lines of other claimant states.

Doubts over American commitment to the Philippines were only reinforced during the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef (1994) and Scarborough Shoal (2012), where Washington stood largely idly by. 

Washington has consistently argued that it is “neutral” vis-a-vis the sovereignty disputes in the area, thus its reluctance to intervene on behalf of the Philippines against other claimant states. But what about helping its ally to protect its sovereign rights per international law? The proposed review of the MDT, thus, could serve as a much-needed springboard to push for greater American clarity on these fundamental questions.