‘We have your back’
The phrase sounds like part of the dialogue from a Western movie. The hero tells his friend who is facing a difficult situation not to worry, “You can count on me. I will be there for you.” It is a vague statement of support designed to make him feel secure and to prop him up in the face of danger.
Actually, it was Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. who brought it up in a statement made after meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a brief stopover last week: “We are very assured, we are very confident that the United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo, and the words of President Trump, to our President, ‘We have your back.’” It is not exactly clear how the idea was expressed but the phrase sounded soothing and was of course, vague.
The visit of Secretary Pompeo comes at a time of rising tensions in the South China Sea with the United States carrying out more frequent patrols in the name of freedom of navigation operations to the discomfort and irritation of China.
Almost 70 years ago, in August 1951, the Philippines and the United States signed a Mutual Defense Treaty recognizing that “an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous and that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” The treaty further stated that “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 Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific.”
Considering the changes that have taken place in the region since 1951, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated earlier the need to review the treaty and to clarify the extent of US commitment in the event of aggression by foreign parties. On the other hand, Locsin sees no need for such a review and considers its vagueness as some form of deterrence although accepting that too much vagueness leads to doubts about the firmness of commitments. Lorenzana has stood his ground, saying that Locsin spoke as a diplomat.
Actually, we need to review not just the Mutual Defense Treaty but our priorities on national security issues. The greatest security threat that we face today is not Chinese aggression in our exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, although this is an issue that calls for skillful diplomacy and balance, considering that we must continue to maintain friendly relations with all nations.
The greatest threat to national security comes from within the country.
First, we have the longest-running insurgency in the world with no permanent end in sight. Only recently, the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, marked its 50th anniversary.
Second, we have the Abu Sayyaf menace that, despite numerous government announcements of its impending demise, continues to be a strong and resilient force involved in kidnappings, mainly of foreigners. In fact, it still holds a number of hostages, and rescue efforts oftentimes end up in the humiliating ambush of elite security forces.
Third, while we have established the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, there remains the faction of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chief Nur Misuari with whom we must reckon, along with other breakaway factions of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front not satisfied with autonomy arrangements and desiring secession and full independence.
Fourth, we have the growing threat from Islamic State elements aiming to establish a caliphate in Mindanao, in alliance with local terror groups including the Abu Sayyaf.
It will take time to see if substantial progress is being made in addressing these issues but in the meantime, the Armed Forces must remain vigilant and continue to strengthen itself, particularly in intelligence operations if we are to prevent another Marawi situation that took five months to resolve. A few years earlier, Zamboanga City was under siege by MNLF forces.
These are the issues that need our serious attention.
Can we rely on a mutual defense arrangement with the United States for our security? Or, have these arrangements become obsolete in changing times? There is some question as to whether the greatest alliance the world has ever known, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is still an effective force for peace considering that its leading member has, at times, questioned whether his country should go to war in defense of other member nations like Montenegro.
In the Pacific, the concern of the United States is not so much China’s island-building and military activities as over its freedom to navigate through international waters without hindrance from anyone. China will remain on those islands that it now occupies and nothing the United States does will get it out.
Under the present circumstances, it is difficult to appreciate how America “would have our back” in the event of foreign aggression.