By Subel Rai Bhandari
U.S. and Philippine officials marked the anniversary of a decades-old bilateral defense treaty this week, with Manila’s top defense official calling for “a comprehensive review” of the alliance amid “new geopolitical realities” such as the rise of China.
Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. met Thursday with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, in Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), among other things.
Blinked thanked Manila for renewing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to scrap after Washington had denied a U.S. visa to his ally.
“We were very gratified to have the recent renewal of the Visiting Forces Agreement. We are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in combating COVID-19 and looking at ways to build back better from the pandemic,” Blinken said after meeting with Locsin.
The VFA, which came into force in 1999, provides legal cover for large-scale joint military exercises and allows U.S. troops to operate in the Philippines on a rotational basis. Analysts have said other bilateral defense agreements between the two would not be possible without it.
Meanwhile, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Wednesday Manila was seeking to “upgrade and update” the U.S. alliance, pressing for a clearer “extent of American commitments” while laying out the case for changes.
“Some questions being asked in Manila are: Do we still need the MDT? Should we amend it? Or should we introduce new guidelines to make it more relevant and robust in the 21st century?” Lorenzana asked.
“What is clear is that we need a comprehensive review of our alliance, taking stock of the pros and cons of the MDT and what happened in the past 70 years,” he said, speaking at an online event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, to mark the defense treaty anniversary.
The MDT is an accord stating that the countries would support each other if either were attacked by an external party. Lorenzana ordered an internal review of the MDT in December 2018.
The “reiteration and further clarification of the precise extent of American commitments to the Philippines under the MDT… is immensely relevant against the backdrop of rising tensions in the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said.
In recent years, the Philippines has come under increasing pressure from China over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea, which China claims nearly in its entirety, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected as invalid China’s sweeping claims over the sea region, as it ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case brought by Manila against Beijing.
China, however, has ignored the ruling and continues with its military expansion in the resource-rich expanse, calling the arbitral court’s ruling “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”
Last month, China announced a new regulation requiring detailed notification from foreign vessels entering its claimed territorial waters without spelling out how it would be enforced.
“We do not, will not honor those laws by the Chinese, pertaining to the Philippines Sea, because we consider that as the sovereign rights of our waters,” Lorenzana said on Wednesday.
“We do not, will not recognize this law by the Chinese.”
In his meeting with Locsin, Blinken also “underscored the importance of freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea” and reiterated calls for China to abide by the 2016 arbitration ruling, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Operational discussions needed to counter “gray zone threats”
Lorenzana said the Philippines “remains dependent on the U.S. up to this day” for its security, but Manila will now endeavor to have a more “independent” foreign policy.
The bilateral relations “have to evolve in recognition of new geopolitical realities, most especially the rise of China,” Lorenzana said.
Certain revisions and additions to the treaty were urgently needed to ensure the Philippines has the “maximum possible cooperation” to counter Chinese militia forces, known as “gray zone threats,” which Lorenzana said had been intimidating smaller claimant countries and their fishermen in recent years.
He noted that America’s former envoy to Manila, Sung Kim, had previously suggested that the treaty could also apply “to this type of hybrid warfare strategy deployed by the likes of China.”
“But we need more specific operational discussions and, eventually, joint activities within the bounds of our existing defense commitments,” Lorenzana stressed.
He said that Manila benefits less from its relationship with Washington than non-treaty allies, like Taiwan.
His country’s agreement with the U.S. “doesn’t suggest a similar degree of American commitment” compared with the treaty the U.S. has with Japan, its World War II enemy.
Lorenzana accused the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton of abandoning the Philippines following China’s occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994.
Also, President Barack Obama’s administration, despite the much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia” policy, “ruled out any robust intervention to assist the Philippines during the months-long standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal in 2014, Lorenzana said.
“As a result, China now occupies Scarborough Shoal – a feature 130 kilometers from the island of Luzon and within the Philippine’s EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone],” he said.
Although the U.S. remains popular in the Philippines, “at least half of Filipinos have expressed doubts over its reliability as an ally in the South China Sea disputes,” he said.
“And this is also why almost seven out of ten Filipinos have supported President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for engagement rather than confrontation with China,” he said.
Duterte, whose six-year term ends next year, has spent much of his time in office building up Manila’s relationship with Beijing while backing off on bilateral ties with Washington.
Earlier this year, government patrols reported spotting 240 Chinese ships in Philippine waters, forcing Manila to raise daily diplomatic protests against Beijing.
Lorenzana pressed for more significant military aid from the United States, including state-of-the-art weaponry, not “Vietnam-era hardware.”
“Non-treaty allies, countries have been receiving billion-dollar military aid and advanced weapons systems from the U.S. Perhaps, a long-time ally like the Philippines, facing major adversaries in Asia, deserves as much, if not more assistance and commitment.”
“We cannot be forever relying on others for our security,” he said.
Dempsey Reyes contributed to this report from Manila.