THREATS by some quarters to unleash military countermeasures on a giant neighbor not only seem surreal but also becloud the country’s peaceful resolution approach. Efforts at building at least a minimum credible deterrent capability have always been a part of the country’s South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) action plan, but the military option can but be a means of last resort. Until that finality, it is best seen as a supporting tool of diplomacy, as something already subsumed in the diplomatic track albeit in a silent mode: it is the big stick while speaking softly. Anyway, the Philippines is a long way from putting its military act together in a credible manner.
The problem with the Philippines’ approach to the South China Sea challenge is that its military aspect is not anchored on the Philippines’ own capabilities but rides on the “ironclad” security guarantee under the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty. The brighter other side of this challenge, of the proverbial Chinese coin, could be the possible opportunities that await the country’s awakening to the need to upgrade its own armed defense services, which have suffered from neglect from, among other factors, focusing on local insurgencies, and which furthermore today face new security concerns such as terrorism sans borders and massive natural disasters brought by climate change. Also on that other side might hopefully be the realization of the need to reexamine the country’s mutual defense arrangements with the United States for their validity and relevance to the country’s needs and interests.
The Philippines appears to infuse credibility to its military option by invoking the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty when there is not even a mutual understanding between the two countries on the application of the treaty. In what might have been a fit of strategic ambiguity, the US Ambassador to the Philippines refused to clarify how “ironclad” the MDT guarantee was, raising questions on the true intensions of the treaty ally. One can recall that at the early onset of the potential conflict situation in the Spratlys involving China, the US declared that the PH-US MDT did not apply as the Spratlys archipelago was not part of the “metropolitan territory” of the Philippines.
The MDT Article IV defines the subject of the Treaty as being “ that (of) an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties” and Article V defines armed attack on either of the Parties in the Pacific Area as 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 (N.B.: The Philippines has no island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Area) or on the armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific. Much later in the intensifying conflict situation and after both Parties to the MDT had been mutually invoking the MDT, the US suddenly announced that it was not taking sides in the South China Sea disputes and insinuated into the situation its very own vital national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the area.
The Philippines must see its way clear to realizing that the PH-US MDT is not mutual and therefore is hardly of any value in addressing its own national security interests, not to mention that it is not relevant to the position of the Philippines in the conflict situation in the South China Sea. One must be in a desperate state of denial to construe the express terms of the treaty and the pronouncements of US senior officials otherwise.
The PH-US MDT has long been anachronistic and belongs to a bygone era as shown by its references to the collective security arrangement under chapter VII of the United Nations Charter and to the development of a system of regional security in the Pacific. The preambular paragraph 3 of the MDT provides the raison’etre for the treaty as “Desiring (further) to strengthen their present efforts for collective defense for the preservation of peace and security pending the development of a more comprehensive system of regional security in the Pacific area.” That system of regional security took the form of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) which was effectively dead soon after its birth as what happened to its counterpart in Central America, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). The ANZUS may still be active but it covers another part of the Pacific area of hardly any concern to the Philippines.
It is now 64 years since the MDT came into effect and clearly time has passed it by; the continuing validity and duration of the treaty are subject to a condition that has failed to materialize. True the MDT has a provision (Art.VII) that “This treaty shall remain in force indefinitely.” This is a rather curious effectivity clause. In geopolitics, a State has no permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests. In contemporary lingo, there is no such thing as a BFF treaty alliance. The MDT as an alliance treaty merely formalizes indefinitely the protectorate status of the Philippines, a country whose fortunes ebb and flow with the geopolitical and economic vicissitudes of the protector-State. At best the MDT is an unequal treaty with a one-way application. Abrogating the MDT might thus be a matter of national self-respect for the Philippines as it appears to compromise the primary State policy enunciated in its 1987 Constitution for the country to “pursue an independent foreign policy” (Section 7).
To be sure, an independent foreign policy does not necessarily mean neutrality or a neutralist policy. It does not necessarily call for eschewing bilateral or multilateral security alliances. The MDT may be abrogated in order for it to be replaced by a new one or none at all in keeping with contemporary realities and a reasonable projection of the future.
A review of the MDT should take into account changes in the global security environment. There have been new security threats underscored by 9/11 and the emergence of asymmetrical warfare, and multilateral defense arrangements have evolved in response to these threats. As demonstrated by provisions in the MDT itself, treaty alliances were meant to be superseded by the collective security arrangement envisioned by the UN Charter. The latter has not materialized due to disagreement among the Permanent Members of the Security Council.
The collective security concept of the UN Charter has however been replaced by “collective defense,” which has been in turn replaced by the ad hoc “coalition of the willing.” The last is a modern version of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of the United Nations General Assembly sponsored by the US during the Korean War, which may or may not necessarily be expressly ratified or authorized by the United Nations. The collective security arrangement in the UN Charter has been invoked to address threats to international peace and security, which have been broadened to include transnational health concerns such as Ebola, SARS, MERS-COV, and still more recently, measles, and even disaster relief. [Opinion Editor’s note: The Philippines withdrew from the “Coalition of the Willing” during the term of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.]
A clear indicator of the necessity to review and redefine the bilateral defense structure the Philippines has with the United States is the latter’s revision of its own 2 ½ front war strategy and resorting to “pivots” which aim less at responding to the particular needs of individual countries and even the region they comprise than to ensure the dominance of the US. Recently, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs went to Washington DC and the Secretary of National Defense visited the UPACOM in Hawaii to appeal to the United States government to “strengthen” its pivot, giving rise to speculations that the pivot had fallen short meeting treaty alliance commitments. In this context, the MDT may be causing unwarranted expectations and worse, generating a false sense of security.
An urgent review of the PH-US MDT is in order in the light of the US announcement that it is bringing its “freedom of navigation ” operations to the South China Sea and within 12 nautical miles of the land reclamation activities of China. When push comes to shove, could the Philippines under the MDT and its implementing agreements be impervious to another and bigger US foreign entanglement in Asia? If the Philippines is not careful, it exposes itself to being collateral damage or worse, a friendly fire casualty in a hot war between major powers.
Abrogation of the MDT need not necessarily mean the end of the world for the country. In the absence of a mutual defense treaty with the United States, when confronted with an armed attack or imminent danger thereof, nothing prevents the Philippines from seeking security assistance from the United States or any other State for that matter. In a self-defense scenario against any State, including China, the Philippines can seek security assistance from any State, the United States included. A mutual defense treaty with the United States is not a sine qua non to the continued existence of a state. None of the other claimant countries in the South China Sea even has a mutual defense treaty with a superior power.