The MDT in a challenging, multipolar world | Inquirer Opinion

The MDT in a challenging, multipolar world

/ 05:03 AM August 31, 2023

This week, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States marks the 72nd anniversary of its ratification. It would be an understatement to say that times were different when the treaty first came into force. In 1951, the world was just getting out of the ravages of World War II. It was the very early years of the Cold War. Today, the world has become multipolar, with various risks—traditional, nontraditional, and emerging—confronting nations.

Then as now, Filipinos have always invoked Article V of the MDT: “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.” The provision gives us a sense of security that we will not be left alone and defenseless in the event of an armed attack.

These come to mind especially as the Philippines has been on the receiving end of various coercive acts by its giant neighbor China despite the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. These acts of assertion fall under the scope of gray zone operations—coercive in nature, but not quite grave enough to qualify as armed conflict or armed attack. The questions foremost on our minds are: Are these acts covered by the protection we enjoy from the MDT? And are there any universally accepted guidelines we can refer to amid China’s sustained bullying and doublespeak?

The security risks that nations face are twofold. Certainly, they threaten to disturb the rules-based international order. This is what China is doing now, in seeing what it can get away with. On the other hand, these risks also offer opportunities for collaboration, not only bilaterally between the Philippines and the US, but among like-minded states who value and respect international law—and basic decency. We commit to the same values and recognize that, ultimately, we share the same fate.


The established order is there for a reason, and those who blatantly and wantonly disregard it will not be looked upon kindly by history. This is why numerous nations—among them the US, Japan, Australia, Germany, United Kingdom, and India—have pledged support for the Philippines with the way its sovereignty is being undermined by China. The water cannon incident off Ayungin Shoal that took place on Aug. 5 is only the latest among such acts.

Events of recent days give us much optimism. Some of the ongoing initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region include the trilateral cooperation among US, Japan, and South Korea, and the proposed joint naval drills of the US, Japan, and Australia in the South China Sea. The US said they were open to having the Philippines in the exercises. Meanwhile, Australia’s commitment in the region is reflected in its ongoing military exercises with the Philippines, called “Exercise Alon.”

Seventeen days after the Ayungin Shoal incident, the Armed Forces of the Philippines successfully conducted its rotation and resupply mission. The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea also reported that Philippine Navy vessels were on standby during the mission. The mission was successful despite the attempts of China Coast Guard vessels and Chinese maritime militias to block, harass, and interfere with the mission.



In May of this year, President Marcos visited the US, during which security and economic cooperation with the two countries were discussed. Indeed, the US role in the Philippines’ security landscape is tangible, as it remains the most trusted country by Filipinos.

The MDT’s continued relevance, boosted by the establishment of new sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, underscores the shared commitment of the US in ensuring peace, security, and stability in the Philippines and in the region. At the same time, further emboldening us with constant support and action are the like-minded states that hold the same respect for a rules-based international order.


The times ahead are uncertain, perilous, and daunting. But with friends like these, the Philippines can confidently navigate these challenges that threaten to break the peaceful coexistence needed to bolster progress and prosperity.


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Dindo Manhit is founder and CEO of the Stratbase Group.

TAGS: Commentary, mutual defense treaty, PH-US relations

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