Lorenzana: Ex-China envoy told me, 'Please do not touch' PH-US military treaty

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza bared on Thursday, September 30, that China had previously opposed his call for a review of the Philippines and United States’ Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which sees both sides commit to defend one another in case of an armed attack. 

As he reiterated his position on the MDT on Thursday, Lorenzana said China’s position was different than that of the US which “welcomes the idea of revisiting” the key military deal. 

“While the US welcomes the idea of revisiting the MDT, an outside party does not. When I first broached the idea of revisiting the MDT, the former Chinese ambassador came to me and said, ‘Please do not touch the MDT. Leave it as it is’,” Lorenzana said during the Stratbase ADR forum on the 70th anniversary of Philippine and US ties. 

Lorenzana did not disclose the name of the former Chinese ambassador on Thursday. When he first voiced a possible review of the MDT in 2018, former China ambassador Zhao Jianhua was posted in the Philippines.

The proposed review was meant to make the treaty more responsive to current security concerns in the region that involve Manila and Washington, including Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea.

Lorenza had earlier renewed his call for a review of the MDT during a recent trip to Washington where he said the defense pact “has been beneficial to the Philippines, but not enough to make it stand on its own feet.”

More effective response

On Thursday, the defense chief said that questions over the relevance continued to play in his mind. These, Lorenzana said, included asking, “Is the MDT still relevant after 70 years? Is it time to abrogate it? Is it time to replace it with a new one that is more responsive to the times or revise it?”

Among the areas of concern Lorenzana said the Philippines wanted the MDT to better respond to included threats arising from boundary disputes similar to those in the West Philippine Sea, terrorism, transnational crimes, drugs, climate change, and the exploitation of resources in the region, among others. Most of these threats, he added, were practically non-existent when the MDT was signed in 1951. 

Lorenzana said a review of the MDT could also improve how both countries could respond to China’s gray zone tactics which it employed to assert its expansive claims in the West Philippine Sea. Such strategies, he added, showed China was “adept at gaming the system” with its “cabbage” tactics of swarming islands with ships and edge out claimants in its own waters. 

“One thing is clear: The Chinese, having embedded themselves with their artificial islands, are not in a hurry for any resolution that is not in its favor,” he said. 

"It (China) knew that any aggression it takes will trigger the MDT,” Lorenzana added. 

US open to MDT review

Along with Lorenzana, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said the MDT needs to be made more relevant to security concerns faced by both the Philippines and US at present. 

“Undoubtedly, the world has markedly changed since 1951. Security threats have since evolved and our new realities need to be considered for the treaty to be effective in ensuring the security of both the Philippines and United States,” he said. 

Romualdez said in-person meetings between Philippine officials, including Lorenzana and US Defense Secretary Llyod Austin have been “very productive and touching on MDT to make it more attuned to the times.”

As the MDT marks its 70th anniversary and as ties between the two nations celebrate its 75th year, Romualdez said the Philippines had multiyear plan on modernizing its military it hoped to be able to discuss with US counterparts. 

“It is imperative for anything that old to evolve if it is to keep up with the times…. It is high time that that treaty lives up to its name. We have to mutually be able to defend each other,” he said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

image