Geographic curse or blessing?

Amid China’s march to contested territories, PHL and U.S. take first step to review 1951 defense pact

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THE Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) that the Philippines signed with the United States in 1951 was supposed to give the country a sense of security against any prospect of an external attack.

But given its current form and with its “ambiguous” provisions, the treaty with the country’s longtime ally does not provide this sense of comfort, particularly against China and its continued—seemingly unstoppable—march in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), which Beijing contends.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (left) and then-US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meet at the Pentagon on September 18, 2018.

China has been characterized by the previous Aquino administration and its security officials as the foremost threat to the country’s territorial integrity, believing that if ever there would be a “shooting war,” this would have to come by way of the Chinese through the contentious issues surrounding claims to portions of the South China Sea.

This “realistic” assessment prompted the government to revisit its Cold War-borne agreement with the Americans, and even casually invoked it in the face of the Chinese threat involving the WPS, which started in 2012, when Beijing began exercising de facto control over the Scarborough Shoal near Zambales.

Friend or foe?

SINCE China and its aggressive activities in the WPS have been considered a threat—although oddly the current administration treats the Chinese as friends—a number of government officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, viewed the MDT as a “piece of paper” in its current form that needed to be reviewed as it is giving the country a false pretense of security, given that in the minds of the Americans, it cannot be invoked on the issue of any territorial dispute.

The review has gotten a positive feedback from the US.

“Maybe within the year; within the year, because the Americans are also interested. They have been asking me about our plans,” said Lorenzana a couple of days ago, adding that a high-level delegation from the US would be arriving soon for the review’s preliminary informal talks.

He said the Americans wanted to know what the Filipinos are thinking over the treaty, and the same for the other side.

“The agreement is very, very short. We want to remove the ambiguities because they always say that we do not involve ourselves in territorial disputes,” the defense chief said.

Lorenzana maintained that if the government has to renegotiate the treaty, it would be for the best interest of the country, or for the mutual benefit of both parties, as the MDT also obligated Manila to come to the aid of the Americans if they are attacked.

When China began to show its aggressive posturing, not only in the WPS, but in the contested portions of the South China Sea, the US has repeatedly announced its “iron-clad” support to the Philippines by way of the MDT, but this expression of support was absent, silent—or at the least, nondefinitive—in the case of territories claimed by the country, but are being claimed by Beijing.

Lorenzana said the renegotiation of the treaty will define in part even the territory of the country, and partially, also the role of the Philippines in case a miscalculation occurs between the US and China in the disputed territory.

“They could define our territory also. What is the limit of our territories? If they said that they are going to defend us or help us if metropolitan Philippines is attacked, what do they mean by metropolitan Philippines? Does it include Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef or Pagasa? [I oddly sense some ambiguities there],” he said.

“That’s also for us, because if you remember this near collision of two frigates—a Chinese and an American in Mischief Reef. Supposing there will be a shooting there [between them], and they invoked the MDT, then you are involved, we’re involved,” Lorenzana added.

For Lorenzana and other officials, the security landscape that is being hemmed and formed by the dispute in the South China Sea urgently calls for the review of the agreement, while, at the same time, they also ardently pushed for the initiation of a code of conduct that would govern all contending states.

At the time the treaty with the Americans was signed, the territorial issue hadn’t been factored in yet, and China was not even in a position to challenge the claims and even activities of the Philippines in the now WPS.

Treaty at fault?

STRETCHING it further, Lorenzana singled out the treaty and the repetitive words of the US that it cannot take sides in a territorial dispute as probably an abettor of China’s activities and its militarization of the South China Sea.

It was also seen as the culprit behind Beijing’s march into the country’s territory in the WPS, which China claimed otherwise.

Officials noted, though, that the US cannot say this in the case of Japan with China over the Senkakus.

“I think that, that’s the origin of all the problems in the West Philippine Sea—when they said we are not involving ourselves in territorial disputes in West Philippine Sea or in South China Sea, [that has] given the blanket authority to do whatever they want,” Lorenzana said.

“That’s why we are in this situation,” he added.

US think tanks, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti), through its fellow and director Gregory Poling, seemed to agree with the observation—with Poling even prodding the US government to come out with a “clearer” position.

At the center

WHILE discounting the possibility of any shooting war between the US and China and tending to limit the view to a mere military rivalry—contrary to some previous analysis even by some active and retired US military commanders—Lorenzana said the country may have been damned, as it is located at the heart of the region and always seems to find itself at the center of two contending armies.  

“This superpower rivalry in our region is not new. It has been done before, it happened before, only now that it’s China. Before, I think some other superpowers like Russia. Japan was also here during World War II [when] they were the rising power, so it’s not new. There are always certain power rivalries going on anywhere in the world and, unfortunately, we are in the center of it here in our region,” Lorenzana said.

“We are smack at the center. Anything that happens here, it involves us, like what happened in World War II, like what happened in the Spanish-American war. We were not even involved, we are so far away but we were involved because of our geography. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be here in this part of the world,” he added.

Nonetheless, location could be a blessing, except that, as the defense chief said, the country must properly “leverage” to its advantage where it sits in the Asia-Pacific region.

Meanwhile, there’s the MDT that’s up for review soon, and one can only hope this will lead to a satisfactory resolution of the unique problems arising from this geographic “curse/blessing.”

Image Credits: Ruletkka | Dreamstime.com, AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta