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To Salvage Its Alliance With The Philippines The US Must Change Its Perspective – Analysis


The Philippines is undertaking a review of its1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the U.S..  Philippines Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said that the review will look at ways to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it.” The possibility that the Philippines might withdraw from the MDT has caused considerable consternation and concern in US Asia policy circles.;  

Some analysts have made observations and suggestions that might help rectify the situation. But they maintain a predominantly one-sided perspective on U.S.-Philippines relations by focusing almost exclusively on US interests in maintaining the MDT. They refuse to recognize the reality that the circumstances – and the Philippines – have changed, and that so must the US attitude and the MDT itself in order to be compatible with the current political and strategic environment.

The MDT establishes and underpins the US-Philippines military alliance.  It obligates both parties to “act to meet the common dangers of “an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”  That seems pretty clear.  But despite decades of Philippine requests for it to do so, the U.S. has refused to clarify if this means that it would come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of a conflict with China in the South China Sea.  Strengthening the Philippines’ doubts, the MDT provides that in such a scenario, the two would “consult” and that such an “attack will be acted upon in accordance with their constitutional processes….” The fear is that the U.S. could use this clause to prevaricate, delay and even evade any military response.

Compounding the concern, under US President Donald J. Trump’s “America First” policy, it is not at all clear that the U.S. will risk blood and treasure in a confrontation with China regarding debatable claims to tiny rocks in the South China Sea, especially  if the Philippines provokes such a clash. Indeed when the Philippines and China confronted each other in 2012 near Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. failed to come to the Philippines’ assistance and as a result China now controls it.  Further, China would likely not attack Philippine navy vessels but instead use its civilian militia to  block and harass them presenting both the Philippines and the U.S. with a dilemma of whether or not to use force. 

Rubbing salt in the political wound, the U.S. has given an assurance to Japan that it will come to its aid in a clash with China over disputed rocks and maritime space under its administration in the East China Sea.  Philippines leaders feel slighted that the U.S. would give such an assurance to Japan but not to it.  Indeed, this contradiction raises the specter of a US neocolonialist approach to the Philippines.  A disappointed Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay Jr. declared that “The United States held on to invisible chains that reined us in towards dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom”.;  

Gregory Poling and Eric Sayers observe that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration thinks that despite the MDT, the U.S. will not come to its aid even in the event of kinetic conflict with China in the South China Sea.

Thus they think it may conclude that to “maintain the MDT gains them little benefit while scrapping it might at least convince Beijing of Manila’s “independent foreign policy _ _” and bring some benefit that way. Poling and Sayers argue that the “Trump administration needs to recognize this danger, understand Manila’s concerns are not unreasonable, and move carefully but quickly to preserve and ultimately strengthen the alliance.” They also point out that the US-Philippines 2014 Enhanced Defense Co-operation Agreement (EDCA) also depends on the MDT.  The EDCA allows the U.S. to construct military facilities, preposition assets, and rotationally deploy troops at five agreed bases in the Philippines. 

While these are useful observations and suggestions especially coming from long term critics of Duterte’s anti-American policy, they make them because they are primarily concerned with US interests.  They raise the old canard that China’s occupation of features in the South China Sea “threatens long standing U.S. interests in the freedom of the seas and the stability of the Indo-Pacific.”  Based on this hyped and self-serving premise, they argue that “defending these interests requires that China’s neighbors, especially the Philippines, continue to believe in U.S. staying power….” 

According to Poling and Sayers, Duterte’s reluctance to allow the U.S. prepositioning of defense assets and troops in the Philippines “must change”.   They also worry that if the Philippines withdraws from the Treaty it “would be a severe blow to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”   In other words, to them, continuance of the MDT and EDCA is critical to U.S. interests in the region, not necessarily those of the Philippines whose relations with China may suffer. What they apparently fail to understand is that this is precisely the attitude that continues to produce anti-Americanism in the Philippines – now manifested at the highest levels of its government.

Obviously the careful cultivated bond between the Philippines defense establishment and the Pentagon is rapidly fraying. This will continue if the U.S. persists in its neocolonial approach.  Worse for the U.S.,  Duterte has demonstrated that bold nationalist leadership in long dependent countries can defy the foreign policy preferences of the protective patron and even bring benefits from China—at least in the short-term. The Duterte phenomenon is a lesson that should infuse and inform US foreign policy in Asia—and elsewhere. The genie of nationalism and independence in foreign policy is escaping from the bottle and altering US security relations in the region.

The only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of the US-Philippines alliance is for the U.S. to shed its neocolonial approach. It must focus on respect for and the satisfaction of Philippines’ national interests to a degree equal to its own.

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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