In December 2018, Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared that he wanted a review of the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). He stated that it is high time for the two allies to examine the treaty’s provision in light of the growing tension in the South China Sea. According to him, the DND wanted Washington’s definitive stance on whether or not Manila could depend on its ally to come to its assistance in case of a confrontation with outside powers in the nine land features that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) occupies in the South China Sea. In a yearend news briefing, Secretary Lorenzana admitted that his call for a review has been triggered by China’s challenging the Philippine occupation of these islets and rocks by aggressively building fortified military facilities on the reclaimed islands it created in the South China Sea. He said that the review of the MDT is needed to make the alliance stronger as the US remains the Philippines’ only formal treaty ally.
This is not the first time that a ranking Philippine government official raised this issue. Several officials of the previous administration privately and publicly asked for unequivocal US commitment to Philippine defense as provided by the 1951 MDT. Aquino Administration officials argued that an armed attack on Philippine metropolitan territory and forces anywhere in the Pacific, including the South China Sea, should trigger a US armed response. However, the 1951 MDT does not entail any automatic response from either the Philippines or the US. It simply obligates the allies to consult each other and determine what military or diplomatic action, if any, both would take.
PUTTING MUSCLE TO THE MDT: THE 2014 EDCA
The US has maintained a position of ambiguity regarding how it will respond in case of an armed attack against the Philippine forces in the South China Sea. The State Department refuses to reference any American automatic response in a crisis in the South China Sea. When pressed on the issue, it falls back on the cryptic statement that since the US is a treaty ally of the Philippines, “China cannot simply assert that events in the disputed South China Sea are not any of Washington’s business.” This policy stems from the US’ reluctance to be pulled into a major conflict with China just in case an armed clash erupts between Philippine and Chinese forces in the South China Sea. Furthermore, American ability to guarantee the Philippines’ external defense depends on whether or not its forces are physically prepositioned to provide immediate response. The US can effectively extend security guarantee to its ally only if it has access to facilities near the South China Sea from where it can quickly react during an armed confrontation.
During the Aquino Administration, the US and the Philippines negotiated the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The agreement aims to facilitate the deployment of American troops and equipment on a rotational basis, thus skirting the controversial issue of reestablishing US bases in the country. On April 28, 2014, former Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg signed the EDCA. This executive agreement serves as a framework by which the Philippines and the US can develop their individual and collective (defense) capabilities. This goal would be accomplished through the rotational deployment of American forces in Philippine bases.
WATERING DOWN EDCA
The election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 led to a dramatic change in Philippine foreign policy. He moved to show his administration’s sensitivity to Chinese security interests by distancing his country from the US, terminating Philippine-US joint patrols in the South China Sea, limiting the scope and reducing the number of interactions between the Philippine and US militaries, and threatening to unilaterally abrogate the EDCA. In December 2016, Secretary Lorenzana declared that the Duterte Administration intends to utilize the EDCA for rapid response during natural calamities, to address terrorism, and to enhance Philippine law-enforcement capabilities. The Duterte Administration’s agenda on the EDCA has rendered it useless in deterring China’s maritime expansion since it prevented American forces from utilizing five Philippine Air Forces (PAF) bases for military operations in the South China Sea.
In early 2017, President Duterte warned the US that he would unilaterally abrogate the EDCA because he received information that the American forces were building permanent arms depots in violation of the agreement and the Philippine Constitution. His warning was followed by Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s statement “that absent a US guarantee of support to its ally, the Philippines would consider scrapping the EDCA to avoid becoming entangled with the US just in case war breaks out in the South China Sea.”
During his visit to the Philippines in early March 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that any attack on Philippine aircraft or ships would trigger a response from the US under the MDT. This, however, did not stop Secretary Lorenzana from pushing his agenda for a review of the MDT. According to him, he does not believe that ambiguity or vagueness will serve as a deterrent but, in fact, could even cause confusion and chaos during a crisis.
Sooner than later, Secretary Lorenzana would realize that the US’ ability to honor its defense commitment to the Philippines would depend on whether American forces are based near the South China Sea. Unfortunately, the Duterte Administration policy of redirecting the implementation of EDCA into Humanitarian Assistance and Risk Reduction (HARD) and law enforcement functions rather than for strategic deterrence has prevented American forces from being stationed in AFP’s facilities close to the South China Sea. Secretary Lorenzana’s efforts to seek greater clarity on the US’ commitment to Philippines defense, while the Duterte Administration is watering down EDCA to show its sensitivity to Chinese security interest will render the 1951 MDT into a “scrap paper.”
Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is professor of International Studies at De La Salle University, and trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute.