Will the US defend us against China?
NOW THAT the Supreme Court has upheld the validity of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), will the United States defend the Philippines if the islands and shoals the Philippines occupies in the West Philippine Sea are attacked by China?
This is the flea-market question that must have sprung in the minds of ordinary Filipinos after the high court dismissed the petitions questioning the validity of the agreement that was signed by the Philippines and the United States in 2014.
The Edca allows the stationing of more US military forces in the Philippines, which both US and Filipino authorities claim will only be on a rotational basis during military training and exercises, and disaster relief operations.
The nonrelease of the complete text of the high court’s decision as of this writing and my law firm’s role as counsel for ex-senators Rene Saguisag and Wigberto Tañada in the case do not deprive me of the leeway to discuss the nonlegal issues of the Edca. Besides, the bone of contention in the high court is essentially the question of who needs to approve the agreement before it becomes valid: the President alone, as claimed by the government, or both the President and the Senate, as argued by the petitioners? The Supreme Court ruled that only the President’s approval is needed.
Since news releases about the Edca are always coupled with references to “the aggressive Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea,” it has become the sentimental expectation of many Filipinos that the Americans will help defend the Philippines if its islands and shoals in the area are attacked by China.
Is there basis for this widely held expectation among Filipinos? An examination of the wordings of the Edca and the pronouncements of US officials will show that there is no commitment at all that America will defend the Philippines in the event of an armed conflict with China over the disputed islands and shoals.
Under the terms of the Edca, the US undertaking is to provide training and exercises for military purposes, as well as disaster relief assistance, by stationing American forces on a rotational basis in the Philippines. Toward these ends, the United States is given rent-free use of Philippine locations where it can bring equipment, vehicles, supplies, and weaponry, with the United States retaining ownership of these movable properties. The Philippines will have to pay for these movable properties if it wants to acquire them. The United States can also construct, renovate, and expand permanent structures that will be used for these activities. Ownership of the structures will be given to the Philippines if these are no longer used by the United States, but the latter has the right to demand payment for its construction expenses.
When she was the US secretary of state, Democratic Party presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton said America remained neutral in the dispute between the Philippines and China over the Spratly Islands. Clinton declared: “The United States does not take a position on any territorial claim because any nation with a claim has a right to assert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion.”
When US President Barack Obama visited the Philippines in 2014, he was asked if America would help the Philippines in case of armed conflict in the Spratly Islands. In his response, he used diplomatic words that still made clear that the United States would remain neutral: “We are an Asia-Pacific nation and our prominent interest is peaceful resolution of conflict… And we don’t even take specific positions on the disputes between nations.”
In total contrast to its position of neutrality in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China, America has given complete assurance that it would come to the military defense of Japan if there is armed conflict over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which is occupied by Japan but also claimed by China. Obama declared in April 2015: “I want to reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and that Article 5 [of the treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including Senkaku Islands.”
In addition to the Edca, the Philippines has the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with America, where both countries declared that they would support each other if either country were to be attacked by an external party. Notwithstanding this treaty, the United States has not made the same assurance of military defense of the Philippines in its dispute with China over the Spratlys.
The United States has never acknowledged that the Philippine-occupied islands and shoals in the Spratlys are undisputed parts of Philippine territory, and this is both reason and excuse why it has never committed to defend the Philippines in an armed conflict with China over these territories.
What the United States has consistently stated as its interest in the West Philippine Sea is to stop China from impeding the “freedom of navigation” in what America considers as international waters.
We Filipinos must open our eyes to the reality that America’s interest in stationing its military forces on our shores is for the purpose of stopping China from changing the nature of the West Philippine Sea as international waters and restricting the free navigation of US military and commercial air and sea vessels. US forces are on our shores to protect US national interest in keeping the sea lanes open for US vessels.
The Philippines may derive collateral benefits from America’s deployment of its forces within Philippine territory, but there should be no illusion that it has come to our islands as a white knight ready and willing to defend the Philippines against China.
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