Pompeo assures US support via MDT, upholds free press, flags Huawei

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Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr., with his US counterpart, Michael R. Pompeo. Photo by DFA

By Camille A. Aguinaldo, Reporter

THE United States will support the Philippines in any armed attack against its forces in the South China Sea since the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the two countries covers the disputed waters, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said on Friday, while raising the importance of human rights as well.

“As an island nation, the Philippines depends on free and unstructured 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 United States,” Mr. Pompeo said in his opening speech during a joint press conference with his Philippine counterpart, Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr., at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) headquarters.

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty,” Mr. Pompeo added.

The US top diplomat was on an official two-day visit to the Philippines following his attendance at the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. He met with President Rodrigo R. Duterte upon his arrival at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City Thursday evening.

In the joint press conference, Mr. Pompeo said the United States’ defense treaty obligations were “clear” and “real,” adding that the Trump administration has made a commitment to ensure that the South China Sea remains “open” for the security of the region and for commercial transit.

He also said he raised the importance of “free speech, free press, and due process under the law” to Mr. Locsin during their meeting.

“I did raise the issue of human rights. I did so broadly. I do this in my travels everywhere we go. We have expectations for countries to observe the rule of law. It is fundamental to America,” Mr. Pompeo said.

“We have an expectation of free and open press everywhere. We communicate that to our adversaries, to our partners and friends,” he added.

For his part, Mr. Locsin said the proposal to review or update the MDT “requires further thought” and later shared his personal view that such a review was not needed.

“Some seek the review of the MDT. This requires further thought. In vagueness lies uncertainty, a deterrent. Specificity invites evasion and actions outside the MDT framework. But too much vagueness lends itself to doubt the firmness of commitment. For the time being, helping the Philippines build up our self-defense capacity should do it,” Mr. Locsin said in his opening statement.

“The question of the MDT review or some like to call it update of the MDT to respond to the changing realities….My own view is ‘no.’ I believe in the old theory of deterrence. I have been an old man engaged in the Cold War for longer than you probably remember. But in vagueness lies the best deterrence,” he later said in the press briefing.

Mr. Locsin noted in the briefing that the Philippines is assured of US commitments to the MDT.

“They will respond depending on the circumstances but we are very assured, we’re very confident that the United States has in the words of Secretary Pompeo, words of President Trump to our President: ‘We have your back,’” he said.

The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty mandates both the Philippines and the US to support each other in case either country is under attack in the Pacific region. Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana earlier said he wanted to review the US-Philippines defense agreement to determine whether it was still relevant to the country.

In a press briefing in Malacañang, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said this was the first time the US made a policy statement on the MDT. He initially said there was “no need to review” the MDT following US assurances, but later noted that the Philippines would still need to evaluate the necessity of a review.

“Since that is the policy of the US, so there is no need (to review) as of now, unless there are movements that will dispute or that will contradict what the US Secretary of State said,” Mr. Panelo said.

“We will have to evaluate. But we are pleased to note that the US has made a policy statement with respect to attacks on a Philippine vessel to be deemed as an attack against the US,” he later added.

Aside from the discussions on MDT, Mr. Pompeo also mentioned American companies’ interest to “invest billions” in Asia in the energy sector. He also highlighted that American companies are the “best partners” in infrastructure, development, and the digital economy.

“Energy will be certainly one area in which the United States is eager to build new cooperation in the region as well. Demand for energy in Asia is going to skyrocket in the coming years. And American companies are poised to invest billions in the region. They’re the best partners to deliver reliable secure and affordable supplies of energy,” he said.

The US Embassy said Mr. Pompeo had a breakfast meeting with Filipino business leaders early Friday to discuss “the robust economic partnerships between the United States and the Philippines.”

Mr. Pompeo also expressed concerns regarding the Philippines’ use of Chinese-based Huawei technology, citing the risks it poses to a country’s communications infrastructure.

“We believe that competition whether it’s in 5G or some other technology are to be open, free, transparent and we worry that Huawei is not that….Every nation that will make their own sovereign decisions on how to proceed, what’s appropriate, the right way to go, we want to make sure that the world has their eyes wide open as to the risks of having that technology part of the infrastructure, backbone, networks that are transiting communications inside of their country and in fact, here and around the world transiting that information internationally as well,” he said.

Mr. Locsin also mentioned that arrangements on President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s possible visit to the US would be attended to after the May 13 midterm elections. Meanwhile, Mr. Panelo said there was still “no definite acceptance of the invitation” on the part of Mr. Duterte.