By Vince Angelo C. Ferreras
DEFENSE Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana’s expressed intent to review the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States could strengthen and reassure the alliance between the two nations, analysts said.
“When Secretary Lorenzana manifested the intent of the President to revisit the agreement, he wanted to make sure the America is really worthy of our relationship with us,” said University of Santo Tomas (UST) political science professor Marlon M. Villarin in a phone interview with BusinessWorld last Dec. 22.
Last Dec. 20, Mr. Lorenzana told reporters that he is open to such review as the US was “ambivalent” on its stand regarding the West Philippine Sea dispute based on the existing accord.
The Defense chief said the MDT covers only “metropolitan Philippines,” which does not seem to cover some of the disputed areas such as the Kalayaan islands.
He added, “The US has always said it will not meddle into territorial disputes… ‘hands off kami.’ So that’s how we look at it.”
Signed on August 30, 1951, the MDT binds both countries to come to each other’s aid during an attack.
Aside from honing a good relationship, Mr. Villarin said the review is needed because the treaty is only limited to military trainings, citing the annual military drills or Balikatan exercises.
He said, “Makikita natin na ‘yung (We can see that the) Mutual Defense Treaty is limited… and at the same time, abstract. What the President wants is to be more specific and more detailed.”
For his part, foreign policy expert and political analyst Richard J. Heydarian said the intention of the Philippines to review the decades old treaty is a good chance for the United States to become clear with its relationship with the country.
“What I can say is that this is a great chance for the United States to come clean. It’s more ambiguity than strategic. Because clearly the ambiguity has let China creeping in to Philippines’ areas of claim and undermining the position of the Philippines in the Kalayaan Group of Islands,” said Mr. Heydarian in a phone interview with BusinessWorld last Dec. 22.
Mr. Heydarian added that the Duterte administration turned the relationship of the US and the Philippine into “transactional” from being “sacrosanct.”
“I think this review is historic in a sense that it comes at the point of transition in Philippine strategic mindset. If the Americans are going to be ambiguous this time just like in the past, they may nudge the Philippines towards greater neutrality and less dependence on and interoperability towards with the US, in favor of much more diversified relations which automatically means closer ties with China and possibly with Russia and other countries around the world which don’t have the best relationship with the United States,” he said.
Mr. Heydarian added, “This is a great chance for the United States to finally come clear in this issue and reassure the Philippines that they will stand by the Philippines the same way they reassured the Japanese that they will stand by them over the Senkaku Islands based on the Japanese-American Defense Treaty.”
Meanwhile, Ateneo Policy Center research fellow Michael Henry LI. Yusingco said the review of the treaty must be transparent and the President should consider whatever will be the outcome.
“He is right to question whether some items there are still relevant today. But the review process has to be transparent. Civil society organizations must be allowed to participate. And there must be a firm assurance that the President will seriously consider the outcome of the review process,” said Mr. Yusingco via email to BusinessWorld last Dec. 22.
Mr. Lorenzana said areas in the South China Sea over which the Philippines has sovereign rights should be covered by the treaty to oblige the US to help the Philippines if ever the country is attacked by other states.
However, UST Political Science Department chairperson Dennis C. Coronacion said it is impossible to include areas beyond the metropolitan Philippines in security coverage as stated in the accord.
“I think the Secretary knows very well that his wish of including the disputed territory in the WPS (West Philippine Sea) in the areas where the MDT should apply will not happen. That wish goes against the usual nature of defense treaties,” said Mr. Coronacion in an online message to BusinessWorld last Dec. 22.
He added, “In addition, I don’t think the US Congress would approve a review of the MDT to include territorial disputes. They would argue that getting entangled in territorial disputes would be against their national interest. In other words, it’s a hard sell.”
However, Mr. Coronacion said the US will still honor its commitment to the country within the parameters of the treaty.
“US will honor its commitment with us within the parameters set by the MDT. But, it will avoid any proposal to widen the scope of the MDT, such as that made by Sec. Lorenzana, since it will be against US national interest,” he said.
According to Article IV of the treaty, each party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the parties 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.
Moreover, Article V of the treaty states that 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.
Defense analyst and Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies Fellow Jose Antonio A. Custodio explained that the Philippines is not technically part of the Pacific Ocean.
“Pacific Ocean is identified separately,” he told BusinessWorld in a phone interview last Dec. 23. “Hindi na tayo
sakop ng Pacific Ocean (We are not part of the Pacific Ocean anymore). The term pacific refers to operational area.”
Despite the ambiguities on the part of the US, Mr. Villarin believes that the US and the Philippines will continue to have a strong relationship in the future.
“It will continue to be a solid-rock relationship… Regardless with the political colors we have right now, the US will remain focused on its interest to us. The same with the Philippines, regardless of our political relationship, whether it’s good or bad to the US, they will continue to see US as our strong ally politically, economically, and of course historically,” said Mr. Villarin.
For his part, Mr. Yusingco said, “I believe the Philippine-US relationship will endure. We may be presently experiencing challenging times but our countries have mutual interests that require the partnership to carry on. The preservation of our nation’s security is just one feature of our relationship with the US. But it is a very important one. Hence, the call of Sec. Lorenzana to review the defense treaty should not be easily dismissed.”