Lorenzana’s wishful thinking
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s recent pitch on reviewing the Cold War-era Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States sounded like tough talk. Whether the defense chief can convince the United States to finally say in no uncertain terms that it will use fire and sword to defend the Philippines against foreign aggression is, however, wishful thinking.
The 1951 MDT was imposed upon the then Quirino regime primarily as part of a Cold War alliance system to prop up US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. The MDT bound the Philippines to fight the United States’ Asian wars in Korea, Indochina and elsewhere. It became a major tool to cement the country’s dependency ties with America.
Instead of dropping the treaty as the Cold War ended in 1990, and in lieu of the nonrenewal of the US bases agreement, Philippine authorities signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), which allowed US forces to stay in the country. Both agreements are used today by the United States to contain China.
But there have been tectonic changes that should sweep the MDT to its grave. No wars have occurred in Asia since the ’80s except domestic conflicts, and now the entire continent is engrossed in economic growth and multilateralism. The two Koreas are engaged diplomatically, with Pyongyang determined to jump-start its economic modernization amid denuclearization talks between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un. Trump’s “America First” unilateralism has been costly, as major allies like Japan and India now gravitate toward China and as the latter’s soft power economic diplomacy is creating a new global architecture.
The only point left in favor of maintaining the MDT is a more bellicose US military primacy in the Asia-Pacific including the South China Sea (SCS), given the decline of its economic clout relative to China’s rising influence. Other than keeping its military supremacy, the United States has no clear core interests in the region. Its provocative naval exercises in defense of freedom of navigation and trade in the SCS fall flat on their face, as there has been no such actual threat in peacetime.
Asean countries refuse to be drawn into a war of nerves between the two powers because it does not benefit them at all, and also given their growing economic interdependence with China. This sentiment is bolstered by the fact that, today, more countries see the United States as a security threat, according to a 2017 Pew Research survey of 30 states, including the Philippines.
Under the regime of the MDT, the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as respect from other countries, suffered. Not one US soldier who has committed a crime in the Philippines has served prison time, and the facilities that operated under the treaty came at tremendous social, health and environmental costs. The culture of militarism promoted by US anti-insurgency methods cannot solve the leftist rebellion, because the solution lies somewhere else; in fact, the government’s peace with Moro rebels is being achieved no thanks to the United States.
Still, the United States will not give up the MDT because of the repercussions it will cause. Without it, the VFA, Edca and other pacts will have to go, sending signals to other US allies to take a similar move. Renegotiating the treaty is not an option, as it will force the United States to change a long-standing policy—that SCS territories are not covered by the MDT. The United States takes no position in the maritime feuds in the name of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it has never ratified anyway.
The United States will certainly think twice about being forced into a skirmish with China given that, based on recent reports, the latter is at near military parity with it. More than half the world, including the Philippines, depends on a partnership with China, and any war will bring down the global economy. Make no mistake: The United States will not fight any war unless its own core interests are at stake.
When the proposed bases renewal treaty was junked by the Senate in 1991, the United States cut off nearly all military and economic aid to the Philippines. This alone may deter the Department of National Defense—a recipient of massive US military aid for decades now—from reviewing the MDT.
With no leading member of Congress taking up his call, Lorenzana’s rhetoric on the MDT may just end up a dud.
Bobby M. Tuazon is director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance and teaches international politics in UP Manila.
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