In a joint press conference with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on March 1, 2019 held in Manila, Unites States (U.S.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “the South China Sea is part of the Pacific” and that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea [SCS] will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty [MDT].” This statement is largely a reaffirmation of Washington’s reassurance in the 1999 letter of then-U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard which cited then-Pentagon chief William Cohen’s comment that “the U.S. considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area” in cognizance of the MDT’s Articles IV and V, as well as previous clarificatory statements by the U.S. Government.
Mr. Pompeo’s remarks come at a time when some Philippine government officials are calling for a review of the MDT. The alliance appeared to have ended on high note in December 2018 when the U.S. finally returned the historic Balangiga bells to the Philippines. Shortly thereafter, in a remarkable turn of events and even before 2018 came to a close, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana publicly called for a review of the MDT by asking if “it [is] still relevant to our security?” In moving forward with the proposed efforts to review the MDT, it behooves stakeholders to examine three relevant and inextricably linked Philippine national security interests vis-à-vis the MDT—the legal cornerstone of the Philippines-U.S. alliance.
First, the promotion of a stable international order in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The MDT was signed shortly after World War II (WWII) and during the early years of the Cold War. Washington was creating an international order of which a broader system of alliances and partnerships—including the alliance with the Philippines—is a crucial security component. The parties of the MDT were victims of Japanese aggression during WWII. In the decades hence, the international security environment has significantly evolved—particularly in the context of the rise of China and the Sino-American strategic rivalry.
In recent years, there appears to be some signs of an intensification of this geopolitical competition. Released by the Pentagon in January 2018, the Summary of the classified U.S. National Defense Strategy (SNDS) identified China—which Washington previously called on to be a “responsible stakeholder”—as one of the “revisionist powers,” with the aim to “reorder the Indo-Pacific region to [its] advantage.” China’s objective to dominate First and Second Island Chains largely through Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) is a manifestation of its strategic intentions. Indeed, in October 2018, weeks after Washington and Beijing were in a near collision in the SCS, Chinese President Xi Jingping called on the People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command, which overseas Taiwan and SCS, to prepare for war. After USS McCampbell conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in January 2019, Beijing responded by pointing out that it has missiles “capable of targeting medium and large ships.”
Amidst an intensifying Sino-American geopolitical competition, ensuring that the strategic environment remains stable and peaceful is a national security interest of the Philippines. Indeed, Manila’s National Security Strategy (NSS) underscores the need for a “stable and secure external environment for the country and people to thrive as a united and progressive nation,” and points out that U.S. presence in the region is a “stabilizing force.” Clearly, one of the MDT’s preambular provisions, the “desire to live in peace with all peoples and all Governments, and desiring to strengthen the fabric of peace in the Pacific Area,” remains very relevant today.
Second, the protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Like all other states, this is a core national interest of the Philippines as provided for not only in the NSS but also it the country’s constitution. One of the provisions in MDT’s preamble notes the allies’ “determination to defend themselves against external armed attack, so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the Pacific Area.” Article III mandates the foreign ministers of both countries to consult each other on the implementation of the treaty and “whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific.”
Article IV of the treaty provides that the allies recognize that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Philippines or the U.S. would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes. Article V further provides that the “armed attack” stipulated in Article IV refers to an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the allies, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific. As noted earlier, Secretary Pompeo clarified that the SCS is part of the Pacific and that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the SCS would trigger a U.S. response under the purview of the MDT.
The Philippine government identified the overlapping territorial and maritime claims in portions of the SCS, particularly the West Philippine Sea (WPS), as “the foremost security challenge to the [country’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Closely intertwined with the major power competition in the region, the SCS dispute has arguably one of the key areas of concern for Manila with respect to the MDT. Manila claims that the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), which constitutes portion of the Spratlys in the SCS, as part of Philippine territory. Notwithstanding such declaration, the reality on the ground is that some of the Philippines’ claimed areas are already under Beijing’s control, even before the current government came into power. In 2013, China initiated efforts that led to the creation of artificial islands in the SCS, particularly in Subi, Gaven, Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Johnson, Mischief, and Hughes Reefs. In recent years, Beijing appears to have consolidated its strategic foothold in certain areas of the SCS through construction of facilities on the artificial islands, deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems, installation of jamming equipment, and other actions. The radius of the bombers, which China landed on Woody Island in the Paracels, covers almost the entire Philippine archipelago. Indeed, China’s actions pose a serious threat to Philippine national security. Bereft of a credible deterrent posture, Manila relies largely on Washington for external defense. In his remarks in Manila, Secretary Pompeo echoed similar concerns: “China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten [the Philippines’] sovereignty, security, and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States.”
I have argued elsewhere that it is highly unlikely that that Beijing will voluntarily abandon, let alone destroy, the artificial islands – and the military facilities on them. Given these realities, a goal for the Philippines is to collaborate with the U.S. and other partners to limit further encroachments in the SCS while boosting capabilities to secure the rest of the archipelago. After all, as Manila’s National Security Policy (NSP), a precursor of the NSS, points out that Philippine national security “is best enhanced through the pursuit of amity and cooperation with all nations and in partnership with like-minded countries and strategic partners.”
Third, the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Under the MDT’s Article II, Manila and Washington agreed to “separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” The provision has been a basis for the various efforts in complementing Manila’s initiative to modernize the AFP, particularity through the transfer of assets and equipment, as well as through exercises and training activities. This has been reaffirmed under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), objectives of which include “addressing short-term capabilities gaps, promoting long-term modernization, and helping maintain and develop additional maritime domain awareness” of the AFP.
Indeed, under the U.S. Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program, Manila acquired former U.S. Coast Guard cutters for the Philippine Navy (PN), C130 cargo planes for the Philippine Air Force (PAF), wheeled and tracked vehicles, among others. Under the U.S. grants program, the AFP acquired Raven unmanned aircraft system (UAS), Scan Eagle UAS, Two Cessna 208 Surveillance Aircraft, and Aerostat Surveillance System. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) provides another legal framework for the exercises and training activities between the allies, including the annual “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercise, and the “Kaagapay ng mga Mandirigma ng Dagat” (KAMANDAG or cooperation of warriors of the sea) amphibious landing exercise. There is an expected total of 281 security cooperation activities in 2019, an increase of 20 activities from 261 in 2018. These initiatives help the Philippines in addressing both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including terrorism as the incident in Marawi recently demonstrated. Overall, these efforts complement the Philippines’ program to modernize its military, a national interest identified by the NSS.
Much has been said about ambiguity of the MDT and, more broadly, Washington’s reliability about its treaty commitments. But beyond the debate about the language of the treaty and how it compares to other U.S. bilateral defense pacts in the region, the efforts to review the MDT appears to be underpinned by the Philippines’ inherent insecurity and strategic predicament as a small power. Hans J. Mogenthau argued that small powers “have always owed their independence either to the balance of power…or to the preponderance of one protecting power…or to their lack of attractiveness for imperialistic aspirations.” As a result, small powers, like the Philippines, appear to “display high levels of paranoia,” as one scholar pointed out, because of their size and relative position in the international system. Moreover, at times, alliance relations encounter the issue of the possibility of abandonment and entrapment—and the Philippines-U.S. alliance is no different. The calls for a review of the MDT may be viewed as Manila’s fear of abandonment by Washington should armed conflict break out in the SCS. Given the high-stakes relationship between the U.S. and China, some may view that the intervention in the SCS is a potential risk for entrapment on the part of Washington. Evidently, the intensification of the U.S-China rivalry for regional preeminence, coupled by the SCS dispute, further exposes Manila’s relative weakness as a small power and therefore heightens its sense of insecurity.
It must be pointed out that, until recently, Washington’s apparent reluctance to consistently reaffirm that the SCS is part of the MDT’s scope may stem not only from obscure statutory construction but also from the fact that the U.S. does not have a significant military presence in the Philippines to respond to contingencies in the SCS. More importantly however, while discussions on potential armed conflict are crucial particularly for military planning purposes, it is equally vital for the alliance to deliberate and develop courses of action on how to counter Beijing’s efforts in dominating the SCS. In particular, China has been employing gray zone tactics in the SCS. Gray zone action has been defined as “coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war.” Hence, such gray zone tactics may fall short of an “armed attack” as provided for in the MDT. The manner by which Beijing seized control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012—practically without firing a shout—is now viewed as a successful employment of gray zone coercion to the point that some in China have called for replication of the so-called “‘Scarborough Shoal’ model.”
In other words, the issue with respect to the Philippines-U.S. alliance is not solely about clarifying the legal definition of an “armed attack” under MDT, including its geographic scope. Rather, an equally pressing issue for the alliance is how to address actions that are coercive in nature but falls below the threshold of an armed attack. As such, countering gray zone coercion is an important area of cooperation for Manila and Washington.
To be sure, promoting closer Philippines-U.S. alliance is not without its share of challenges. However, facing a volatile and complex security environment, where gray zone coercion is increasingly being used by rising powers to alter the status quo, requires cooperation between and among like-minded countries that have compatible—while not necessarily always similar—strategic interests. Strengthening the Philippines-U.S. alliance, such as through the fast-tracked implementation of EDCA, will likely serve Manila’s three aforementioned national security interests. Notwithstanding purported benefits, dismantling the legal foundations of the alliance in an uncertain and unpredictable strategic milieu may have far-reaching consequences that could amplify the already inherent vulnerabilities of a small power.
*Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.