By Karl Romano and Jeoffrey Maitem
The United States will back the Philippines militarily over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Filipino government on Friday, saying Beijing’s actions were threatening Manila’s sovereignty.
The top American diplomat, during a meeting in Manila with Filipino counterpart Teodoro Locsin, pledged that the U.S. would invoke a nearly 70-year-old bilateral defense pact if necessary. Pompeo landed in the Philippine capital on Thursday evening and had candid, closed-door discussions with President Rodrigo Duterte, who has adopted a benign foreign policy toward China during his nearly three years in office.
“As an island nation, the Philippines depends on free and unobstructed access to the seas. China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the U.S.,” Pompeo told a joint news conference with Locsin in Manila on Friday.
“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the SCS would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our MDT,” he said.
He was referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, a vaguely worded mechanism that obligates America to come to the aid of the Philippines in times of external aggression.
“Our commitments under the treaty are clear. Our obligations are real. The South China Sea is clearly part of an important body of water for freedom of navigation.”
The Trump administration was determined that sea region stay open and unobstructed, he said.
“We remain committed to supporting not only the Philippines in that effort, but all the countries in the region, so that these incredibly vital economic sea lanes are open and China does not pose a threat to closing them down,” Pompeo said.
On Thursday, while en route to Manila, he indicated that Washington worried Beijing was using its powers and influence to “deny freedom of navigation in the region,” according to an official transcript of his conversation with reporters, who were accompanying him on the flight.
Despite agreeing to a working draft for a Code of Conduct to govern actions in the disputed maritime region, China, however, has continued with its expansionist moves, building artificial islands and structures in islands it already occupies.
And Filipino and other officials in Southeast Asia have expressed fears that while China was negotiating a peaceful settlement, it was also adopting a strategy of encircling areas in the sea occupied by rivals and cutting them off from supplies and reinforcements.
‘We are very assured’
Locsin, for his part, noted that the treaty was a deterrent to any threats of one country taking over the entire sea region. He said he believed that Washington would act to protect the Philippines “in the event an act of aggression” committed against Manila.
“I don’t believe that going down into details is the way the sincerity of the American commitment will be shown,” Locsin said. They will respond depending on the circumstances but we are very assured, we are very confident that United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and President Trump said to our president, ‘we have your back’.”
Locsin was reacting to calls by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to review the treaty to clearly define roles of each country. Lorenzana had called for Manila to “revisit the terms” of the treaty, which may be outdated in the face of Chinese challenge.
“We share the view that the alliance must be able to ensure the unfailing mutual defense of our two countries. The key word is ‘mutual.’ We have our end to hold up as well, and we need the means to do that from the U.S.,” he said.
He said a review required “further thought,” arguing that too much “specificity” encouraged evasiveness by the treaty partner outside framework of mutual defense.
“But too much vagueness lends itself to doubt the firmness of commitments. For the time being, helping the Philippines build up our self-defense capacity should do it,” Locsin said.
Pompeo, in addition, stressed that the United States was seeking partnerships, “not domination,” and that it was eager to build cooperation across Asia. In particular, he said, American firms were poised to pour billions of dollars into the Asian energy sector in the near future.
“Similarly, American companies are best partners in the priority areas of infrastructure, development and the digital economy because they operate with the highest standards of transparency and adherence to the rule of law,” he said. “The same cannot be said of Chinese state-run or state-backed enterprises.”
Pompeo pointed to tech giant Huawei, alleging that it was not operating on a level playing field. Countries such as the Philippines were risking their security if they wholly embraced the Chinese firm, he said.
“As our task has been to share that information. Every nation will make their own sovereign decision about how to proceed. That’s appropriate. That’s the right way to go,” Pompeo said.
“But we want to make sure that the world has their eyes wide open as to the risk of having that technology be part of the infrastructure, or backbone, or networks that are transiting communications inside of the country,” he stressed.