Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has insisted the Philippines and the United States must review the Mutual Defense Treaty the two allies signed in 1951 and define in the review what constitutes an attack.
Lorenzana’s insistence followed a declared vow by visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Washington would defend Manila against “armed attack” in the disputed South China Sea—seen by political analysts as the strongest warning thus far against Chinese claims to most of the strategic waterway.
According to Merriam-Webster, attack is the act of attacking with physical force or unfriendly words or a belligerent or antagonistic action launched against one’s opponent.
Lorenzana, citing the MDT, said in Filipino the Philippines was not being attacked militarily in the South China Sea by the Chinese. They (the Chinese) just got an island. Where will that fall under? Those are the ambiguities that must be reviewed.
Political observers said Pompeo’s statement was the first time a US government official from the Trump administration clarified that the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing are locked in years-long territorial row, is covered by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, republic vessels, in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under article 4 of our MDT,” Pompeo told a joint press conference with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin in Manila.
Article IV of the MT 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.”
“As an island nation, the Philippines depends on freedom and unrestricted access to the seas. China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, your security and, therefore, economic livelihood as well as that of the United States,” Pompeo said.
But Lorenzana said the treaty was not ratified by the US Congress.
“It was only signed by their executive so." You read the MDT. It is said there ‘according to constitutional processes (still).”
“I don’t know why it was never revisited and I still believe that the best time to have reviewed the MDT was when the bases of the Americans left the Philippines in the 1990s,” Lorenzana said.
Speaking after meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, Pompeo said Beijing’s artificial islands in waters also claimed by the Southeast Asian nation and other neighbors was a threat.
“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States,” he said at a joint news conference with Locsin.
“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack of Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defence Treaty.”
Pompeo’s comments marked the first time any US official had publicly stated Washington’s intent to defend the Philippines specifically in the strategic waterway, a potential flashpoint, according to observers. A 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty committed Manila and its former colonial ally to come to each other’s aid in case of an “armed attack in the Pacific area” on either party.
Senior Duterte officials have called for a review of the pact because they were unsure whether it applied to the maritime row.
Troops and fishermen have frequently complained about harassment by Chinese maritime security forces around some of the islands and reefs Manila occupies.
The United States has said it is not taking sides in the dispute over waters claimed by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
However, Washington has asserted its right to freely sail over waters through which trillions of dollars in global trade pass through each year and which reputedly contain vast mineral and oil reserves.
The Philippines used to be the staunchest critics of China’s expansive claims over the sea.
But after his election in 2016, Duterte put the dispute on the back burner in favor of courting Chinese trade and investment.
He threatened a split with the United States and called then President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch.”
Relations are being rebuilt under US President Donald Trump, who has hailed Duterte’s actions including a drugs crackdown that has claimed thousands of lives as a sign of toughness.
Locsin on Friday downplayed his government’s suggestions for a review of the defense pact, saying in its “vagueness lies the best deterrence.”
“We are very assured, we are very confident that United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and words of President Trump to our President: We have your back,” Locsin said.
But Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty still needed to be reviewed to clarify some “kinks” and to make the terms of the pact more clear-cut.
Lorenzana also said the defense treaty needed to be reviewed.
That view was the opposite of Locsin’s.
“My own view, it is a dynamic exchange that’s going on in government, my own view is no. I believe in the old theory of deterrence. I have been an old man, I’ve engaged in the Cold War for longer than you. In vagueness lies the best deterrence,” Locsin said during a press briefing.
“How do you flesh out that vagueness? In the repeated assurances by the US that in the event of an act of aggression committed against the Philippines. I don’t believe going down into the details is the way the sincerity of the American commitment can be shown,” he said.
Pompeo and Locsin also discussed the US support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Modernization Program as well as the government’s campaign against all forms of criminality especially terrorism and its connection with illegal drugs trade.
“Ideally mutual defense should cover a partner’s back as well as its front. Secretary Pompeo and I agreed that it was in both our countries’ interest to ensure that the alliance effectively address other non-traditional security issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; and, above all, the fight against human trafficking,” Locsin said.
Pompeo, for his part, raised the importance of a free press during his talks with Locsin.
“I raised with my counterpart the importance of protecting the rights and liberties of all Filipinos including free speech, a free press, and due process under the law,” Pompeo said in his opening remarks during his joint press conference with Locsin.