Is America a reliable ally? | Inquirer Opinion

Is America a reliable ally?

Is America a reliable ally

In his recent keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, President Marcos expressed his opposition to any “illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive actions [which] continue to violate our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction” in the West Philippine Sea. Although he didn’t directly name China, everyone in the room, including the large Chinese military/troll army delegation was keenly aware of Mr. Marcos’ reference point.

In response to a Chinese military officer, who tried to grill the President with a toxic cocktail of strategic gaslighting and run-of-the-mill propaganda, Mr. Marcos warned that “[i]f a Filipino citizen is killed by a willful act, that is I think a very, very close to what we define as an act of war and therefore we will respond accordingly.”

Moreover, he implied that Washington would likely come to the Philippines’ rescue in such eventuality under the terms of the Philippine-United States Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). But when pressed on the matter, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III largely demurred during his own address at Asia’s premiere defense dialogue. Instead of squarely standing by the Philippines, he simply resorted to the “iron-clad commitment” platitude and refused to engage in any “hypothetical” scenarios.

To be fair, the US defense chief’s priority was to reestablish communication channels with Beijing following his first-ever formal meeting with his Chinese counterpart in years. But at this point, it was clear to everyone in the room that the maritime disputes were entering a particularly troubling phase, with the prospect of armed conflict becoming far from just hypothetical.


The past year alone saw Chinese maritime forces deploying water cannons and colliding with Philippine patrol vessels on half a dozen occasions. The significance of Mr. Marcos’ statements was fully on display just weeks later when Chinese maritime forces aggressively boarded Philippine vessels and disarmed naval officers en route to the Second Thomas Shoal. The upshot was the injury of at least one Filipino serviceman.

After decades of strategic ambiguity stretching from the Richard Nixon to Barack Obama administrations, the Trump administration went the extra mile to clarify that any “armed attack” on Philippine public vessels, troops, and aircraft in the West Philippine Sea would activate the MDT. The timing is crucial since former president Rodrigo Duterte convincingly questioned America’s reliability during the earlier years of his tenure. A Pulse Asia survey conducted from Dec. 6-11, 2016, showed that as many as 50 percent of respondents either were undecided (33 percent) or disagreed (17 percent) when asked if “security/defense relations with the US have been beneficial to the Philippines.”

The following year, a Pew Survey showed that confidence in US leadership collapsed from 94 percent under Obama in 2015 to only 69 percent under Trump in 2017. In short, Washington was under pressure to clarify its commitments after letting Filipinos down on multiple occasions, most notably during China’s seizure of Mischief Reef (1995) and Scarborough Shoal (2012).

The problem, however, is that the current interpretation of MDT has not deterred China from employing aggressive “gray zone” tactics, even if former US ambassador Sung Kim suggested, on the eve of the Reed Bank Crisis in 2019, that the MDT could potentially also apply to gray zone operation by “government-sanctioned militias” of a hostile third party.


In a 2023 declassified document, legal experts and policy analysts at the Indo-Pacific Command have suggested that the MDT should also apply to “illegal use of force [which] is not limited by law to a kinetic armed attack (e.g., the use of munitions), but could also include non-kinetic attacks that result in death, injury, damage, or destruction of persons or objects.” So far, however, the Biden administration has not clarified that, as a matter of official policy, the MDT is purpose-fit for China’s aggressive gray zone tactics, which are already causing “injury” and could be potentially fatal.

Aside from adapting the parameters of MDT, however, the US should also facilitate the expedient modernization of the Philippines’ maritime active defense capabilities through, inter alia, rapid transfer of decommissioned littoral combat ships and lease of high-speed boats to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which has been starved of any modern US-made weapons systems for decades. Otherwise, what’s the point of an alliance if it’s only hypothetically useful when an all-out war breaks out? Lest we forget, the ultimate utility of any robust alliance is the deterrence of hostile powers.



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