The past few days, during speaking engagements in America’s seat of power, I had the chance to exchange views with senior experts and (former and current) policy-makers with direct knowhow of the state of Philippine-American alliance.
So naturally, while indulging the springtime in Washington DC, had reflections and exchanged views on a key policy question: Will America, under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), help us in an event of conflict in the West Philippine Sea?
After all, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has consistently raised concerns over impending Chinese reclamation over the contested Scarborough Shoal. And based on my conversations with officials and experts from all relevant powers in the Pacific theatre, the consensus is that it is just a matter time before that happens.
First and foremost, we must recognize the fact that American interest in the West Philippine Sea transcends its alliance with the Philippines. Washington has a vital interest in ensuring no regional power, namely China, dominates the strategic waterways, which undergirds American naval hegemony and global trade.
American interests also transcend specific administrations’ tenure, whether in Washington or/and Manila. In short, the American security establishment thinks beyond either Trump or Duterte.
The Scarborough Shoal, for instance, is of key interest, given its high proximity to the Subic and Clark bases, which, it is conceivable, could one day be more open to American rotational presence, depending on the domestic politics in the country and the preference of the influential Philippine security establishment.
Second, one must bear in mind that policy questions, especially of such magnitude, don’t have a ‘black and white’ answer, which will be highly situational and contingent on various factors: American threat perceptions, the strength of US-Philippine alliance, the resolve of China, and domestic and international public opinion.
So, please, don’t believe so-called ‘experts’ who claim to ‘know’ a clear-cut answer.
At the same time, however, as one former admiral told me, “We can’t want Scarborough Shoal more than the Philippines." (Clearly, some of President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent remarksseem to have created a degree of confusion and reticence vis-à-vis American alliance commitment to the Philippines, which itself is foggy and yet to be full fleshed out.)
Personally, I have advocated for greater clarity on the part of both the (former) Obama and Trump administration on this issue, since I see more ‘ambiguity’ than ‘strategy’ in their current position of strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis the precise coordinates of their military commitment to the Philippines.
On two occasions, I asked, on the record, two (former and current) senior American officials, one in Pentagon and another in the State Department, whether the MDT is just a matter of semantics or, instead, could be concretely invoked in specific scenarios, particularly in the Scarborough Shoal, if and when China chooses to fully reclaim the contested land feature. So far, the most I have heard is their reassertion of 'ironclad commitment', but no clear explanation on what this means in operational terms.
This ambiguity has a long history, but by no means does it indicate inaction/indifference, since in recent years, America has prevented China from fully consolidating control over the Scarborough Shoal by stationing advanced military hardware in nearby bases, conducting surveillance activities close to the shoal, and deploying warships in the area, ostensibly for Freedom of Navigation Operations.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is considering various options to step up American efforts to rein in Chinese assertiveness and prevent the creation of a Chinese-led exclusion zone in the area, which will become highly likely if Beijing manages to dominate the strategic triangle of Spatlys, Paracels and Scarborough Shoal, and turn them into a sprawling network of airbases, hosting military facilities and advanced missile defense systems.
To better understand the situation, let’s look into the historical background. For decades, America has wavered on this specific issue. Back in the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a diplomatic cable, made it clear that “there are substantial doubts that [Philippine] military contingent on island in the Spratly group would come within protection of (MDT)," instead only offering “helpful political actions" in an event of conflict between the Philippines and a third party.
In absence of a legal and diplomatic settlement of these disputes, Kissinger clarified that “[we] do not see legal basis at this time, however, for supporting the claim to Spratlys of one country over that of other claimants."
For top officials like Kissinger, America’s limited commitment was due to the fact that the signing of the MDT preceded the Philippines’s effective occupation of features such as Thitu (Pag-Asa) Island, plus there was a necessity to ensure that bilateral security obligations would not be exploited as a carte blanche for Philippine territorial adventurism.
As Kissinger argued, in absence of international settlement, what matters is “[c]ontinuous, effective, and uncontested occupation and administration of territory", but “[Philippine] occupation could hardly be termed uncontested in face of claims and protests of Chinese and Vietnamese."
America, however, did express, albeit with certain caveats, its commitment to come to the rescue of the Philippines if the latter’s vessels and troops come under attack in the Pacific theatre - but not necessarily if it involves a military showdown over contested land features.
Kissinger, for instance, made it clear that the “MDT may apply in event of attack on [Philippine] forces deployed to third countries, which. . . is fundamentally different from case where deployment is for purpose of enlarging Philippine territory."
This is precisely why the United States chose to encourage the Philippines to find a diplomatic compromise when China wrested control of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef (1994) and Scarborough Shoal (2012). Nonetheless, in Manila’s calculation, America’s augmented military presence, through agreements such as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA(, on its soil will serve as a 'latent deterrence' against further Chinese revanchism with its 200 nautical miles exclusive zone.
After all, China only started to chip away at Philippine-claimed features when American bases vacated the country in 1992.
Also, it would be politically difficult for America to desist from meaningfully aiding a besieged Philippines when a significant amount of its troops are (or are slated to be) located on the Southeast Asian country’s soil. Moreover, previous American administrations (Clinton and Carter) have also made it clear that the MDT could be activated if Filipino vessels and troops come under attack by a third part in the Pacific. It is important for the Trump administration to reiterate this policy.
In short, America will be compelled to act if Sino-Philippine disputes get out of control and transform into a full-fledged confrontation. This is why agreements like EDCA mean that China will have to more seriously take a American military response into consideration if and when it chooses to coercively occupy Philippine-controlled/claimed features.
And don’t count out Japan, since it has vital interest in preventing its chief rival, China, from dominating sea lines of communications like the South China Sea. Under the newly-passed ‘collective self-defense’ bill, it can come to America’s aid if the latter intervenes in the South China Sea in behalf of allies like the Philippines.
Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that this will be enough to rein in Chinese ambitions in the area. Not to mention, China could in fact accelerate its construction activities, expand its paramilitary patrols and step up its military footprint in the Spratly chain of islands to pre-empt the expected spike in American military presence in the area.
What is clear, however, is that America remains to be the Philippines’ best and only insurance policy, no matter how equivocal, if Manila wishes to protect its territorial integrity and maritime interests in the West Philippine Sea.
Note: this piece was partly based on an earlier article for The National Interest.