On August 30, 1951, former Philippine President Elpidio Quirino delivered his remarks after the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in Washington, DC where he paradoxically described it as ‘the end and the beginning’. While he did not elaborate what he meant by that strange statement. He must have been alluding to the end of the Philippines total dependence on the US for its security to an era that would make it achieve a credible defense posture. It was not to be. The Philippines remains dependent on the US up to this day.
There are two salient points of the MDT: first, that both countries will aid the other in case of external attack and, second, that through self-help and mutual cooperation, improve their defense capabilities. Fortunately, the first was never tested because there was never an attack on any of them. For the second point, President Quirino must have hoped that the US, being the more developed and the only superpower at that time, would help the Philippines.
At the time of the MDT signing, the Philippines was still reeling from the effects of WW2. It was desperately trying to revive its economy and rebuild its infrastructures. Manila was being reconstructed from the near destruction it suffered during the war. The Philippines then was not in a position to be buying military equipment. Its only hope was help and assistance from the US.
As the US military drew down its forces in the region, the Philippines became the biggest beneficiary of US excess defense articles such as ships, planes, trucks, artillery and other war materiel. And this became the norm in the succeeding years where the Philippines got hand-me-down equipment, never brand new (except the Cessna Caravan two years ago). We may be the only country that still have WW2 and Vietnam era ships in its inventory.
The inadequacy of the Philippines’ defense capability was starkly exposed when the US bases were closed in 1992. With the closure of the US bases, the supply of spares to maintain the equipment ran dry and a huge number of ships, planes, helicopters, trucks became inoperational. It is no coincidence that the Chinese wrestled control of Mischief Reef in 1995, three years after the bases were closed.
Having said that, let me discuss some of the dynamics that have been playing and are still playing in the South China Sea, and some issues that had been nagging the minds of Philippine officials and scholars for quite some time.
During the twilight years of the Obama administration, as tension in the South China Sea reached new heights, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Beijing to express Washington’s growing concerns over the aggressive actions of China in the South China Sea. They met at the National Defense University of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Beijing where the two defense chiefs ended up in fiery exchanges.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan warned, “While China stands ready to resolve the disputes diplomatically, China is always ready to respond militarily to threats.” Sec. Hagel reportedly shot back, saying “We have mutual self-defense treaties with each of these two countries (the Philippines and Japan), and we are fully committed to these treaty obligations”. This placed Washington’s military might behind its key allies at the forefront of maritime disputes in Asia. The problem, however, is that the US has unequal treaties with its two Asian allies, something that became increasingly clear following former President Barack Obama’s visit to the region in 2014, where he firmly stood by Japan amid the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes with China but fell far short of extending similar assurances to the Philippines.
This is not only a question of geopolitics, namely the relative centrality of Japan to the US-led regional security architecture as opposed to the Philippines’ more peripheral role, but also legal. And it reflects the asymmetric and unequal conditions under which the US negotiated its post-World War II defense treaties with Japan, a former-enemy-turned-top-ally, and the Philippines, a former colony that fought for the US.
According to Article I of Japan-US Security Treaty, which was signed on Sept. 8, 1951 in San Francisco, “Japan grants, and the United States of America accepts, the right … to dispose United States land, air and sea forces in and about Japan. Such forces may be utilized to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East and to the security of Japan against armed attack from without.” The text of the treaty, not to mention on-the-ground-realities, such as Tokyo’s long-established administrative control over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as part of metropolitan territories, suggests a high degree of automaticity in US intervention in an event of conflict with a third party.
As for the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, Article V states, “an armed attack on either of the parties is deemed to include 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 the text of the treaty doesn’t suggest a similar degree of American commitment when compared to the Japan-US treaty. For instance, Article IV of the of the Phil-US MDT simply states: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” The emphasis is on “constitutional processes”. It suggests a high degree of uncertainty, namely the need for US congressional approval and other possible objections by non-executive branches of the US government.
“Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken measures to restore and maintain international peace and security,” Article IV of the MDT continues, once again belying a noticeable degree of indeterminacy in US commitment to the Philippines in an event of conflict with a third party.
No wonder then, that from the Nixon all the way to the Obama administration, we have seen a succession of American governments studiously equivocating on its alliance commitments in the name of ‘neutrality’. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger puts it, “the US should refrain from any explicit commitment for Philippine claims in the South China Sea, since the US does ‘not see [any] legal basis’…for supporting the [Philippine] claim to Spratlys…over that of other claimants.”
Two decades later, the Clinton administration effectively abandoned the Philippines following China’s occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, just as it deployed multiple aircraft carriers to protect Taiwan, a non-treaty ally, against Chinese provocations. And even under the Obama administration, with its much-vaunted ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, the US consistently equivocated on alliance commitments and, in another crucial juncture in our alliance and the South China Sea disputes, ruled out any robust intervention to assist the Philippines during the months-long stand off with China over the Scarborough Shoal in 2014. As a result, China now occupies Scarborough Shoal- a feature 130-km from the island of Luzon and within the Philippine’s EEZ.
Thus, even if the US enjoys high favorability rating among Filipinos, at least half of Filipinos have expressed doubts over its reliability as an ally in the South China Sea disputes. And this is also why almost seven out of ten Filipinos have supported President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for engagement rather than confrontation with China. It was precisely against this backdrop that I have called for a review of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the aim of ensuring that it truly serves our interests, especially in the present rapidly changing regional security environment.
Incensed by the suboptimal terms of the Philippine-US alliance, a post-war Filipino nationalist and Senator, Claro M Rector, lambasted the country’s “mendicant” foreign policy and that “the grand design of American strategy is to make Japan the leader of the anti-communist forces in Asia” at the expense of other allies such as the Philippines. Reflecting on the ‘unequal treaties’ between US, on one hand, and Japan and the Philippines, on the other, Filipino journalist Manuel Almario lamented, “Should World War III break out, would the Philippines again be the sacrificial goat of the great powers?”
In this sense, the MDT, which complemented the Military Bases Agreement (1947) and the Military Assistance Pact (1947), was thought by some Filipinos to have served as a convenient tool by the US to consolidate its control over its former colony and for post-war Philippine elite to outsource the country’s external security needs at the expense of the Philippines’ long-term national security interest. The end of the Cold War, however, provided the Philippines a new chance to revisit the terms of its alliance with the US and, following the exit of American bases in Subic and Clark, focus on developing its own defense capabilities.
The 1987 Philippine Constitution expressly states the importance of an “independent” foreign policy. Article II, Section 7 the Constitution unequivocally says: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and the right to self-determination.”
Two major factors, however, have circumscribed the emergence of a truly “independent” foreign policy in past decades. First, the protracted communist insurgency and the lack of sustained commitment by various presidents hampered any meaningful modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). And second, the 9/11 attacks turned the Philippines into the ‘second frontline’ for America’s Global War on Terror (GWOT), as the two allies tweaked the MDT’s guidelines to focus on non-traditional security (NTS) threats, but without any significant increase in American assistance for AFP’s conventional capabilities, as evidenced by the steady degradation of Philippine naval and air assets throughout the first decade of the 21st century.
By and large, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), signed in 1998, served as a framework for non-traditional security cooperation between the two allies, focusing on counter-terrorism as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in 2014, however, has tried to fill in the gap, partially reorienting the Philippine-US alliance towards deterring aggression by hostile powers in the South China Sea. But fundamental concerns remain vis-à-vis the very text and terms of the MDT, which was negotiated in radically different geopolitical circumstance 70 years ago.
The Philippine-US alliance, therefore, will have to evolve in recognition of new geopolitical realities, most especially the rise of China, as well as Manila’s constitutional commitment to a more “independent” foreign policy. To be fair, Washington has been increasingly responsive to our concerns over lack of a clear commitment over the ongoing South China Sea disputes.
Former Secretary Mike Pompeo assured Manila, for instance, that the MDT would apply in an event of “any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea.” This was followed by a policy statement on the maritime disputes, which signaled growing American commitment to stand by the Philippines over its legitimate maritime claims in the area. By and large, the Biden administration has continued in the footsteps of its Republican predecessor, both on the South China Sea disputes and America’s broader China policy.
Nonetheless, much is to be desired in terms of the seventy year-old alliance, given what is happening in the South China Sea and beyond, not to mention the Philippines’ commitment to cultivate a more balanced relations with other countries in the region. Somes question being asked in Manila are: “Do we still need the MDT”? Should we amend it? Or should we introduce new guidelines to make it more relevant and robust in the 21st century? What is clear is that we need a comprehensive review of our alliance, taking stock of the pros and cons of the MDT and what happened in the past 70 years.
Moving forward, we believe there are at least three key areas for consideration, as we seek to upgrade and update the Philippine-US alliance:
I. Reiteration and further clarification of the precise extent of American commitments to the Philippines under the MDT, and in accordance with the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at the Hague. This is immensely relevant against the backdrop of rising tensions in the South China Sea, including the prospect of a
II. Revisions and additions in MDT and other relevant Philippine-US defense agreement to ensure we have maximum possible cooperation and interoperability to deal with so-called ‘gray zone’ threats, namely state-sanctioned/supported maritime militia forces, that have been intimidating smaller claimant states and their fishermen in recent years. The US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim has publicly suggested that the MDT could also apply to this type of hybrid warfare strategy deployed by the likes of China. But we need more specific operational discussions and, eventually, joint activities within the bounds of our existing defense commitments;
III. The Philippines is currently in the midst of an unprecedented, multi-billion-dollar military modernization program. We need and desire a modern, professional and capable armed forces that could address current and future security concerns within our vast maritime domain. In this light, we believe it’s important that we go beyond ‘Vietnam era’ hardware in bilateral grants and purchases and, accordingly, move towards acquisition of evermore advanced weapons systems that will allow us to have a ‘minimum deterrence’ capability against external threats and adversaries. Non-treaty allies countries have been receiving billion-dollar military aid and advanced weapons systems from the US. Perhaps, a long-time ally like the Philippines, facing major adversaries in Asia, deserves as much, if not more assistance and commitment.
In summary, the MDT has been beneficial to the Philippines, but not enough to make it stand on its own feet. We cannot be forever relying on others for our security. Helping the Philippines modernize its military would make it a more reliable and dependable ally to the United States in the pursuit of a free and peaceful Indo Pacific.