Philippines-US relations

Philippines, US crafting defense guidelines to address ‘ambiguities’ in MDT

Sofia Tomacruz
Philippines, US crafting defense guidelines to address ‘ambiguities’ in MDT

PH-US TIES. Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson, DND OIC Jose Faustino Jr., and UP Professor Jaime Naval speak during the FSI Mangrove Forum on October 26, 2022.

US embassy in Manila

Philippine defense officials have long wanted to revisit the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US and determine whether it could still respond to current security concerns in the region, including Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea

MANILA, Philippines – Over 70 years since the Philippines and United States inked their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), diplomats and defense officials from Manila and Washington are crafting guidelines that seek to clarify the agreement and push it to meet newer security threats.

The guidelines, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said, was a “key deliverable” from recent high-level meetings between Philippine and US officials, whose engagements have ramped up in recent months under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

“Our Mutual Defense Treaty, which we concluded 71 years ago, serves as the overarching defense agreement between the Philippines and the United States,” Manalo said on Wednesday, October 26, during a forum hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Foreign Service Institute and the US embassy in Manila.

“A key deliverable from these engagements is the pending bilateral Defense Guidelines, which the Philippines hopes will address effectively any ambiguities with respect to implementing the MDT, while still allowing for flexibility,” he added.

The drafting of bilateral defense guidelines, first raised following a strategic dialogue between the Philippines and the US last November 2021, aims to flesh out a more detailed understanding of the “roles, missions, and capabilities” of both countries.

Philippine defense officials have long wanted to revisit the treaty and determine whether it could still respond to current security concerns in the region, including Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea.

For one, former Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana had been one of the most vocal proponents of reviewing the MDT, saying he defense pact had been “beneficial to the Philippines, but not enough to make it stand on its own feet.”

Among the areas of concern Philippine defense officials wanted the MDT to better respond to included threats arising from boundary disputes and gray zone tactics in the West Philippine Sea, terrorism, transnational crimes, drugs, climate change, and the exploitation of resources in the region, among others.

Despite this, few experts expressed optimism that any review would take place under Rodrigo Duterte, who had tested ties with Washington and preferred to foster warmer ties with China.

‘Evolving alliance’

In his speech, Manalo said Marcos was keen on strengthen Manila’s ties with Washington “by, in his words, ‘evolving the alliance,’ that makes it more responsive to present and emerging challenges.” This included a request from the Philippine side to increase US military aid for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

“Both leaders, in their meeting, agreed to work together, including via working groups in Manila and in Washington, in determining the next steps to ensure that US programs adequately meet PH needs,” Manalo said.

He added, “From recent engagements, it is clear that both sides wish to avoid making the same missteps in the past that caused some irritants in our relations.”

Along with Manalo, US official had earlier described a “new energy” to rekindle ties with the Philippines. In June, Ely Ratner, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, expressed similar optimism that Philippine-US defense ties were on a “very strong trajectory.”

US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson likewise recently announced that the State Department has proposed allocating $100 million in foreign military financing for the Philippines as part of efforts to boost the Southeast Asian country’s defense modernization efforts.

The amount, if approved, would be more than double the approximately $40 million in foreign military financing the Philippines received in 2022. Apart from this, another $70 million in defense infrastructure spending was expected in the next two years, Carlson said. – Rappler.com

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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.