Time to Make Good on the U.S.-Philippine Alliance

CNO Richardson Philippines_edited

A storm is brewing in America’s oldest security alliance in the Indo-Pacific and the administration needs to act quickly to head it off. On December 20, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana called for a review of the provisions of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Washington and Manila. A week later, he confirmed that Philippine government lawyers had been tasked to study ways to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it.” The primary reason for this review is what Lorenzana called America’s “ambivalence” about whether the treaty applies in the South China Sea, where Philippine troops and facilities are under threat from an increasingly assertive China. In a Jan. 8 interview, Lorenzana reiterated that if America won’t clarify the treaty’s scope, then scrapping it altogether is “an option.” That would be a severe blow to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific and a largely self-inflicted wound by Washington.

Lorenzana and the defense establishment in Manila are unlikely to demand actual amendments to the MDT. Doing so, even if the negotiations were successful, would require ratification by the U.S. and Philippine senates, which seems unlikely in the current political climates in both capitals. What they seem to want is a public clarification of U.S. policy regarding the application of the treaty to the South China Sea, hopefully accompanied by new guidelines to modernize and operationalize the treaty for the current threat environment. Given Washington’s interests in countering Beijing’s illegal claims and militarization of the South China Sea and the continued utility of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, Manila’s concerns should be seen as entirely reasonable and Washington should move quickly to resolve them.

American Uncertainty

Articles IV and V of the MDT obligate both parties to “act to meet the common dangers” of “an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” But there is no longer any real threat of invasion of the metropolitan Philippines. The only external threat to the country is to its holdings and citizens in the South China Sea. If the treaty doesn’t apply there, then Filipinos might understandably view it as an anachronism. As a result, Philippine officials have sought clarity for decades on whether the United States considers the islands and reefs they occupy in the South China Sea to fall within the scope of this commitment.

The issue became more urgent in 2012 when China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines despite a botched U.S. attempt to negotiate a mutual withdrawal of vessels. In early 2014, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea were covered by Article V of the U.S.-Japan treaty, which has nearly-identical language to the U.S.-Philippine pact. But during a visit to Manila as part of the same trip, he refused to give a similar clarification for the Philippines. Instead he insisted that the U.S. commitment to the alliance was “ironclad” — an emotive phrase that purposely dodged the question. The term “ironclad” has since become a mantra repeated by every U.S. official asked about treaty application for the last five years, most recently by Amb. Sung Kim on Dec. 19, to the chagrin of many Filipinos.

Whether the nine Philippine-held features in the Spratly Islands fall under the scope of the treaty’s Article V is unclear. For one thing, they were occupied by the Philippines after the treaty was ratified and the United States takes no position on their ultimate sovereignty. The relative strength of Philippine claims to the islands compared to those of others like China or Vietnam is unclear, and the question can only be legally decided by direct negotiation or arbitration. As with other regional territorial disputes like those over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima), the United States steers clear of murky historical questions and insists only that the disputes be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. There is also an open question about whether the reference in the U.S.-Philippine treaty to “island territories under its jurisdiction” sets a higher bar than the U.S.-Japan treaty, which uses the language “territories under the administration of Japan.”

Scarborough Shoal, which is not part of the Spratlys, is a special case. U.S. officials concluded during the 1930s that it was legally acquired by the United States from Spain in the 1900 Treaty of Washington. It was then transferred to the newly independent Philippines in 1946, which Washington continued to recognize into the 1980s when it used the area as a bombing range with Manila’s permission. But during the last 30 years, successive U.S. administrations have ignored or forgotten this historical position and instead adopted the same neutrality toward Scarborough as toward the Spratlys, believing it grants U.S. policy more flexibility.

But quibbling over whether the islands and reefs themselves are covered by the treaty is unnecessary. Article IV of the Mutual Defense Treaty specifies that “an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties” would trigger a common response. Article V specifies that this includes not only attacks on the metropolitan territory or islands of the parties, but also “its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” In 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen affirmed that the United States “considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area” and therefore any attack on Philippine “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft” there would be covered by Article V. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard reiterated this in a letter to the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs in 1999. Unfortunately, that was the last time any U.S. official publicly took a stance on the issue. And that silence has been deafening in the wake of developments in the South China Sea and the explicit commitments made to Japan.

The View from Manila

Secretary Lorenzana has been a champion of the alliance and a moderating influence on the anti-American prejudices of President Rodrigo Duterte. That he is so exasperated and uncertain about Washington’s willingness to follow through on its treaty commitment should be deeply concerning and seen as reflective of widespread anxieties in the traditionally pro-American Philippine defense establishment. U.S. policymakers and experts might be tempted to believe that the Philippines has too much to lose to move forward with the review, much less abrogate the treaty. But from Manila’s perspective, gambling now that a treaty review will elicit a straight answer from Washington regarding the South China Sea is a smarter bet than gambling later on whether the United States will come through if China resorts to force.

During the last decade of American waffling on its treaty commitment, the threats to Philippine assets in the South China Sea have increased considerably. Beijing has built and militarized seven artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys. It has used these to extend its air, naval, coast guard, and paramilitary presence throughout the South China Sea, harassing Filipino fishermen, aircraft, and resupply missions to Philippine-held islets and reefs, including the marine detachment on the Sierra Madre, a Philippine Navy vessel purposely run aground at Second Thomas Shoal two decades ago.

If Philippine vessels and planes continue to operate and assert their rights in disputed waters, then eventually there will be a violent incident involving Chinese forces, whether intentional or not. Beijing has exponentially increased the number of assets deployed in contested waters and continues to operate them in a dangerous manner against its neighbors, which makes the status quo inherently unstable. Lorenzana knows this as well as anyone. Before that day comes, he needs to know that the United States will be there to deter China from escalating the situation and, if necessary, to intervene directly to defend Philippine personnel and platforms. Just as importantly, he needs to convince skeptics in the administration, especially President Duterte, of that fact so that they will endorse a policy of continued reliance on the United States and defiance of China’s claims.

But if the pro-alliance voices in Manila are wrong and the United States isn’t willing to respond to an attack on Filipino soldiers or vessels in the South China Sea, Philippine officials need to know that too. It would confirm what Duterte and other skeptics have long believed: that since the Americans won’t fight in the South China Sea, the Philippines’ only long-term options are accommodation of China or defeat. In that case, Philippine officials might conclude that maintaining the MDT gains them little benefit while scrapping it might at least convince Beijing of Manila’s “independent foreign policy” and lead to some concessions in negotiations.

And walking away from the treaty wouldn’t necessarily cost the Philippines its broader security relationship with the United States, at least once the initial damaged feelings wore off. Most U.S.-Philippine military-to-military cooperation doesn’t rely on the MDT and is similar to U.S. security engagement with non-allies in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and increasingly, Vietnam. This includes joint training, capacity building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterror cooperation, and air and maritime patrol. The breadth of security cooperation with Manila is admittedly greater than with most other Southeast Asian partners, except perhaps Singapore, but it is not fundamentally different. Even the direct presence of a significant number of U.S. forces in the southern Philippines to assist with intelligence gathering, training, and other counterterror cooperation is not dependent on the alliance relationship. That presence is governed by the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, which was ratified by the Philippine Congress in 1999 and would continue in the absence of the MDT.

The one thing that would disappear if the MDT were scrapped would be the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed by Manila and Washington in 2014. Under that agreement, the United States is permitted to construct facilities, preposition defense equipment, and rotationally deploy troops and platforms in five agreed-upon Philippine military bases. Unlike the Visiting Forces Agreement, EDCA was not ratified by the Philippine Senate. It was concluded as an executive agreement and the Supreme Court of the Philippines upheld its constitutionality based on Article II of the MDT, which specifies that both parties “by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” The text of EDCA makes clear that its primary purposes are to allow the United States to assist the Philippines with maritime security in the South China Sea, disaster relief, and modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Like the MDT, much of its value rests on whether the United States is willing to come to the aid of Philippine armed forces in the South China Sea.

Avoiding Catastrophe

China’s pursuit of its illegal claims and its militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea threatens long-standing U.S. interests in the freedom of the seas and the stability of the Indo-Pacific. Successfully defending those interests requires that China’s neighbors, especially the Philippines, continue to believe in U.S. staying power and remain willing to contest Beijing’s demand for vast rights in contested waters.

The political argument against clarifying that the MDT applies in the South China Sea is that doing so might invite Philippine adventurism which could in turn drag the United States into an unnecessary conflict with China. But with China’s militarization of the Spratlys and the flood of Chinese vessels to the region, the costs of continued ambiguity from the United States far outweigh any purported benefits. There will be another violent incident between Chinese and Philippine vessels sooner or later, and it won’t require any adventurism on the part of Manila; it will just require the Philippines to continue sailing in its own waters. Greater clarity on the U.S. willingness to defend its ally would serve as a strong deterrent against China escalating such an incident.

The only thing continued U.S. ambiguity does is make it more likely that Manila will permanently shelve its claims in deference to Beijing, dooming any U.S. hope of successfully defending a free and open South China Sea in the process. The Trump administration needs to recognize this danger, understand that Manila’s concerns are not unreasonable, and move carefully but quickly to preserve and ultimately strengthen the alliance.

First, U.S. Defense and State Department officials should communicate privately to counterparts in Manila that Washington remains committed to the Cohen/Hubbard interpretation of Article V. But they should also insist that a public affirmation of that commitment be accompanied by reassurances from Manila to help strengthen the credibility of alliance, particularly regarding EDCA implementation.

Without a rotational presence in the Philippines, the nearest land-based U.S. forces that could respond to an incident in the South China Sea would be more than 1,000 miles away. With three operational Chinese air and naval bases in the Spratlys, that makes the credibility of any current U.S. commitment highly questionable. Unfortunately, Manila has been holding up implementation of the agreement for nearly three years. Only one base has seen any construction — a disaster relief warehouse and a command and control center — with the same planned at one and possibly two other locations. President Duterte has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. prepositioning of defense equipment at any of the locations and rotational deployments seem unlikely for the foreseeable future. That must change.

Second, if an agreement can be reached to exchange EDCA implementation for a public clarification of the treaty commitment, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should do so at the first opportunity. This could be during either Congressional budget testimony this spring in Washington or, even better, a trip to Manila. That clarification would need to be carefully calibrated. It should reaffirm the Cohen/Hubbard policy that an attack on Philippine armed forces, planes, or vessels in the South China Sea are covered by Article V. It need not say that the Philippine-claimed islets in the Spratlys are covered but should affirm that the United States opposes any attempts to unilaterally change the status of occupation at the nine features currently administered by Manila. It should also explicitly state that Washington does not recognize Chinese jurisdiction over Scarborough Shoal and would act in concert with Manila to oppose any Chinese construction on the feature.

And third, the U.S. government should take the opportunity to inform Manila of an enhanced security assistance package to help build the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and propose talks to formulate new guidelines for Philippine-U.S. defense cooperation modeled to better operationalize the alliance, much as the 2015 revised guidelines have done for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

It would be easy to dismiss the concerns of Secretary Lorenzana as empty rhetoric. We believe bold action to preserve the U.S.-Philippine alliance is not only an imminent requirement but one that will serve the larger objectives of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. While assuaging Manila’s concerns, Washington could better position itself in Southeast Asia and strengthen U.S. South China Sea policy. But it would also begin to modernize an alliance that has suffered from too much complacency on both sides and which has fallen behind the times as a result. The alternative, a diminution and possible severing of the alliance, would cost the United States at least as much as it would the Philippines.


Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Eric Sayers is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He previously worked as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a Special Assistant to the Commander at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Elliott Fabrizio