In Pompeo visit, Philippines gets timely assurance from oldest ally

Pia Ranada

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The US assurance that Philippine vessels in the South China Sea are protected by the Mutual Defense Treaty sends a 'strong and clear' signal to Beijing

MANILA, Philippines – It was one sentence many Filipinos have long wanted to hear.

Would the United States back the Philippines militarily if China attacks its vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied in the affirmative on Friday, March 1, and his words were music to many ears.

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said at the tail end of his overnight Manila visit.

It’s a long overdue assurance from the Philippines’ longest defense treaty ally that clarified what the US was willing to do if a shooting war broke out in the South China Sea, a crucial body of water being claimed, virtually in its entirety, by China.

The sentence may sound like jargon to some. Indeed, it’s an almost word-for-word reiteration of Article V of the 68-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Manila and Washington DC. (READ: Despite new friends, Philippines sticks it out with U.S. in 2018)

But it’s the repetition of crucial lines in the pact, especially at this time, that make Pompeo’s words significant.

“Pompeo essentially restates the previous US position given to the Philippines in writing in 1979 and 1995. But the significance is that it is made publicly and openly by the US Secretary of State himself, and referring to the South China Sea expressly,” maritime expert Jay Batongbacal told Rappler.

“The diplomatic signal is strong and clear, that MDT obligations will be triggered by an attack on Philippine vessels or aircraft, wherever they are in the South China Sea,” he added. 

Malacañang sensed weight in Pompeo’s words.

“This is the first time that the US made a policy statement, that any assault or attack on any Philippine vessel would trigger the application of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” said Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo on Friday.

Even more significant is that Pompeo planned to make that statement of assurance. He mentioned MDT’s coverage of the South China Sea in his opening statement, not in response to a reporter’s question. It was part of the script.

Much-needed reiteration

The way Pompeo worded his declaration is important. He cleared up the US’ position on Article V of the MDT which defines when the US will be obligated to act militarily to help the Philippines. 

“These words were carefully chosen to respond to Manila’s concerns. They are pulled directly from Article V of the treaty, and essentially restate the position that William Cohen took 20 years ago but the US has subsequently been hesitant to repeat,” South China Sea expert Gregory Poling told Rappler. 

Cohen was the US secretary of defense who, in 1998, affirmed that the MDT’s provision on responding to attacks on Philippine vessels and aircraft applies when they are in the South China Sea.

Article V reads:

For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

Pompeo’s assurance of MDT protection for Philippine vessels in the South China Sea has been the stance of US administrations for the past 40 years. But his public statement clarified where the unpredictable Trump administration stands on the matter at a time when China is becoming increasingly more aggressive.

The US assurance has direct implications on China’s expansion plans in the South China Sea.

Poling said the US declaration’s impact on the ground is “huge.”

“This establishes a clear deterrent for the Chinese. It says that there should be no question that violence against Pag-asa (Island) or the (BRP) Sierra Madre for instance, would result in a US response,” he told Rappler.

Duterte’s trust

Will the US’ clear stance on China aggression change President Rodrigo Duterte’s attitude towards the Western ally?

It was only a little over two years ago when Duterte declared his military and economic “separation” from the US in favor of China and Russia.

He had done so out of an apparent skepticism of the US’ commitment to back the Philippines up against China.

“We were warned by everybody that something was afoot there, that something was going to be built there. Why did America – they’re the only ones who can go there – they could have solved the problem in the bud,” said Duterte back in March 2017.

“I will not call on America. I have lost trust in the Americans,” he had said again that August.  

Borne out of the same frustration, Duterte has threatened to scrap the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the US military to construct facilities and pre-position defense assets inside Philippine military bases.  

Holding up our end

Experts, like Poling, have said that though Duterte did not make good on his threat, EDCA is not being implemented as envisioned, and this hampers the US’ ability to come to Manila’s aid.

With the US statement on MDT, Philippine officials will now have more ground to stand on when pushing for full implementation of EDCA.

It gives the largely pro-American Philippine defense establishment “more leverage to walk into Malacañang and say, ‘The Americans have said they’re going to be there for us, but we have to do our part. It’s time to follow through on EDCA,’” said Poling.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr sounded all for Manila doing its part in his opening remarks delivered beside Pompeo.

“They key word is mutual. We have our end to hold up as well and we need the means to do that from the Umited States but ever and always there must be the sincere mutual desire to help and be helped,” he had said. 

Still, Lorenzana is not letting go of his plans to review the MDT. Asked for his reaction to Pompeo’s remarks, he played cool.

“He just reiterated what is in the treaty. Nothing of new import,” he told Rappler.

He agreed with Panelo that there may be some “kinks” in the 7-decade-old treaty that need smoothing out.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. 

“Keep in mind that ‘review’ is not necessarily renegotiation. In fact, periodic review is mandated by [the] MDT provision on periodic consultations,” said Batongbacal.

Besides, though public declarations of support are always valuable, it all boils down to actions. Will the US go beyond pretty words and follow through? 

A promise has been made. Time will tell if it will be kept. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.