As if to compensate for the failed denuclearization summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scored a coup of sorts during a stopover visit in Manila.
From Hanoi, Pompeo flew to Manila where he had a brief meeting with President Duterte on the night of Feb. 28, and with Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin the following day.
In a joint press conference with Locsin, the state secretary gave what amounted to the clearest assurance yet from the United States that it will fulfill its obligations under the Mutual
Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines amid Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, your security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States,” said Pompeo. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations
under Article 4 of the Mutual Defense Treaty.”
Officials were quick to hail such words as the most definitive statement yet on the extent to which the United States will come to the defense of its former colony and strategic ally in the Pacific in the face of bullying by China. Malacañang, for one, was exultant: This was “the first time that the US made a (clear) policy statement that any attack on the Philippines will trigger a US response,” crowed presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.
The scene was a far cry from just over two years ago, when President Duterte made a dramatic announcement in Beijing, during bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that “America has lost now,” and that he was “separating” the Philippines from its longtime ally. (“I, in this venue, your honors… I announce my separation from the United States both in military—not in social—both in military but economic… I am separated from them, so I will be dependent on you [China] for all time.”)
But, irony not being a strong suit in Malacañang, Duterte officials conveniently forgot all about that earlier declaration of “separation” as they reveled in Pompeo’s soothing rhetoric. Locsin was all ebullience when he said: “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.’” Panelo, just as giddy, added: “Oh, by just saying that ‘we have your back,’ that means ‘we are behind you, we will support you.’”
But, in a break with their civilian colleagues, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and other security officials are not as convinced about the US resolve. Lorenzana — who had earlier called for a review of the treaty to evaluate if it was still relevant in the face of China’s muscle-flexing in the region — insists that Washington should do more by clarifyin “ambiguities” in the MDT, such as what it will do in cases of nonviolent aggression.
“We weren’t attacked. Our islands were just grabbed. Where will that fall under [the treaty]?” asked Lorenzana. A good question—but one that Locsin would rather not have answers for at this time. The treaty’s “vagueness” serves as a “deterrent,” he said, and America’s pledge of protection should be good enough for now, since “They will respond depending on the circumstances.”
Is that position really wise? Mr. Duterte himself had once questioned the US commitment, pointing out that it did not stop China from building military installations and runways on contested reefs in the South China Sea.
The US promise also comes at a time when the erratic Trump administration is being increasingly seen as an unreliable partner in international commitments, having successively pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the International Court of Justice, and the nuclear deal with Iran. It has even made noises about leaving Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the bedrock of the Western democratic alliance for over half a century now.
Just a few days after Pompeo’s visit, Chinese fishing vessels once again reportedly drove away Filipino fishermen from sandbars near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa island.
How do such acts of Chinese aggression figure into the US-Philippine alliance?
Lorenzana is right: As far as those waters and the Philippines’ interests in them (and not only America’s) are concerned, something much more than chummy rhetoric is needed.
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