The Philippines has decided to review the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed the plans, and US Ambassador in Manila corroborated by saying that his country was open to the idea of “adjustments [in the MDT] that would be useful” for both sides and make it current and more robust.
There are at least three reasons which prompted Philippines to review the MDT. First is the fact that MDT is nearly six decades old and was signed during the Cold War. It is quite natural that it merits a review keeping in mind the ongoing political and strategic changes in the Indo-Pacific region, and the unfolding regional security environment led by China’s economic and military rise necessitates a review.
Second, although Article 5 of the MDT commits the US and the Philippines to support each other if any of the partners comes under an external attack, it is silent on response in case any of the signatory is involved in territorial disputes. This issue came to fore consequent to US’ announcement not to interfere in the Philippines-China dispute over sovereignty of island and features in South China Sea. In 2012, Philippines lost control of the Scarborough Shoal to China and Manila filed a case for international arbitration at The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The US assured Philippines of its commitments to the Alliance, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Washington would “not take sides on the competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea.” This was sufficient reason for the Philippines to have another look at the MDT. Apparently, Philippines has been seeking review of the MDT ever since, but the US had been delaying it.
Third, and vice-versa, the Philippines is also not quite sure if Manila can take sides with the US under the MDT. The US and China are locked in naval posturing in the South China Sea. In January 2019, Two Freedom of Navigation patrols have been undertaken by the US warships since the beginning of 2019 and Admiral John Richardson, US chief of naval operations stated that there is no “limitation on whatever type of ship could pass through those waters”, suggesting that an aircraft carrier could be the next vessel sailing through the Taiwan Strait. There have also been close encounters between the warships of the two countries and a retired PLA Navy Rear Admiral has even suggested sinking US aircraft carriers.
Philippines is too weak to confront the colossal military power of China and the PLA along with its Navy and the Air Force are perhaps the most powerful in the region capable of challenging Japan as also the US. It has reinforced the reclaimed features in the South China Sea with infrastructure, amassed military arsenal, and is also setting up a maritime rescue centre in the Fiery Cross Reef.
Although Manila is justified to review the MDT, it is confronted with at least two dilemmas. First, the US and Philippines have two major bilateral military cooperation mechanisms i.e. the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1998 and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation signed in 2014. It is under these agreements that the US Navy is permitted make post calls in the Philippines as also “construct facilities and pre-position and store defence equipment, supplies and material within Philippine military bases and to deploy troops on a rotational basis there.”
These are closely linked to the MDT and Manila may find it prudent to rework the MDT and respond to current situation wherein China has pursued an aggressive stance and deployed nearly 100 naval and coast guard vessels including fishing boats close to Thitu Island where Philippines is building a beaching ramp for vessels to unload repair materials required for lengthening the existing runway to accommodate larger planes. Furthermore, the US-Philippine joint military cooperation also focuses on counter-terror and counter-narcotics cooperation which are critical for the internal security in the Philippines.
Second, Manila, under President Duterte, enjoys close relations with Beijing and China is the top foreign investor in the Philippines (US $ 930 million in 2018). However, Chinese plans to take over the geographically sensitive Hanjin shipyard located close to a Philippine naval base has been under domestic scrutiny from national security angle.
It is fair to argue that the Philippines can be expected to review the MDT and make amendments rather than abrogate. However, it remains to be seen if the revised MDT includes sovereignty issues linked to the South China Sea disputes. In case the US and Philippines agree on this issue and include in the revised MDT, it would be possible for US forces to get physical access on the islands which will heighten regional tension and bring the US and China closer to more severe confrontations. China is sure to bring immense pressure on Philippines to prevent such a scenario.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.