THE PHILIPPINES’ top envoy on Wednesday said he would seek updates to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States to keep up with the times, as the Commission on Appointments approved his nomination.

The treaty, which binds both countries to help each other in case of external attacks, is “being reviewed continuously at various levels to take into account the changing geopolitical conditions as well as changes in technology and approaches,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo told lawmakers at a hearing.

Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel asked Mr. Manalo about his view on territorial disputes, citing President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s vow not to “abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power.”

Mr. Manalo promised to challenge any foreign power claiming Philippine territory.

He also said that there is more interest in boosting humanitarian assistance and disaster response. “That’s going to be an important part and we’re talking about that, as well as the new ‘gray zone’ tactics in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Manalo said, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

He also cited the changing global environment and ways to deal with other countries. “We always have to adapt. That also applies to our treaties and our other arrangements.”

When asked what he thought of China’s reported opposition to the Mutual Defense Treaty review, Mr. Manalo said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) would “just note whatever statements they may make.”

Former Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana last year said China did not welcome the idea of revisiting the treaty. “When I first brought up the idea of revisiting the Mutual Defense Treaty, the former Chinese ambassador came to me and said: ‘Please do not touch the MDT. Leave it as it is.’”

“It feels good to tell China, ‘noted.’ Thank you, secretary,” Ms. Hontiveros said. “I really look forward to your next six years at the department.”

Senator Francis N. Tolentino said the government should form a group that will handle international and commercial arbitrations especially on the Philippines’ claim to Sabah.

“The DFA should now seize the opportunity. We won, whether that was initiated by a private group is irrelevant, the implication is, we own Sabah,” he told the hearing, referring to a French arbitral court’s order for Malaysia to pay the Sulu Sultanate over the Sabah lease deal.

He noted that about 750,000 Filipinos live there, “stateless, without social security and health benefits, and not allowed to vote.”

Sabah has abundant natural resources and its primary exports include oil, gas, timber and palm oil . Its other major industries are agriculture and ecotourism.

Mr. Manalo said he there is a need to convene a Cabinet cluster committee that would study the legal implications of the French tribunal’s order.

The oil-rich state of Sabah, a territory that is part of Malaysia’s northern Borneo, has been a thorny issue between the two countries for decades.

The Sulu Sultanate claims to have leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Co. in 1878, a deal that Kuala Lumpur sees as an act of abandonment.

The sultans of Sulu once ruled over Sabah and the Sulu islands. Sabah fell under British control after World War II and joined Malaysia in 1963, shortly after the sultanate ceded sovereignty to the Philippines. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan