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Opinion

US-Philippine defense tensions weaken regional security

Duterte's hostility and Obama's errors threaten an old and once valued alliance

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, left, is "very assured" when he hears about U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's clarification on the defense treaty.    © AP

The United States-Philippines alliance has been under stress since the election of the vocally anti-American Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, but Washington bears plenty of responsibility for the downturn in relations.

Most frustrating for the Philippines was American inaction as China launched its march across the South China Sea earlier this decade, with the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama taking virtually no action to dissuade Beijing from its island-building campaign.

When China reneged on a U.S.-brokered deal to end a standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, Washington did little more than shrug its shoulders.

The U.S. has thus proven itself an undependable ally for the Philippines when it comes to defending Manila's interests in the South China Sea. That brewing dissatisfaction seemed to come to a head when Delfin Lorenzana, the Filipino defense secretary, announced in December that he had launched a review of the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty to determine whether Manila should "maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it."

Enter U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the Philippines in late February in an attempt to set the ship aright. While there, he did what the Philippines has long been requesting, clarifying that the defense treaty applies to the South China Sea: "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 our mutual defense treaty."

This was not a new policy. In a letter to the then-foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines in 1999, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard clarified that the treaty applied to the South China Sea. In 1979, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance outlined a similarly expansive interpretation of the treaty. Even so, this interpretation had not been restated in two decades; indeed, the Obama administration had pointedly refused to reissue such a clarification. In light of China's actions in recent years, a recommitment to this position was sensible.

Asked if he was satisfied with Pompeo's clarification, Filipino Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin replied in the affirmative. "We are very assured," he said. "We are very confident that the United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and the words of [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump to our president, 'we have your back.'"

Crisis averted? Evidently not. Following Pompeo's visit, Lorenzana issued a statement on the treaty review, which concluded thus: "The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future. But the U.S., with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea [a Philippine government term for the South China Sea], is more likely to be involved in a shooting war. In such a case and on the basis of the MDT [mutual defense treaty], the Philippines will be automatically involved. It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want."

Previously, it had been understood that Manila was concerned about Washington's commitment to coming to the defense of the Philippines. Now, a senior Philippine administration official was openly implying an unwillingness to come to America's defense (although Lorenzana was wrong to assert that the mutual defense treaty would require automatic Philippine involvement in a U.S. war).

It would not have been surprising for Lorenzana to welcome Pompeo's statement while insisting it was insufficient to allay Manila's concerns. After all, Washington still has no South China Sea strategy to speak off. But Lorenzana's decision to call into question the mutuality of the defense treaty was unexpected.

This is particularly worrying because the Philippine defense ministry has until now been a reliable proponent of the U.S. alliance, often in contravention of Duterte's efforts to distance Manila from Washington.

Where to go from here? The Philippines remains an important ally for the U.S. Access to military facilities there is crucial for a variety of reasons, from combating terrorism in Southeast Asia to ensuring a favorable balance of power in the South China Sea, and from rapidly responding to natural disasters to ensuring an effective American forward defense perimeter. Simply giving up on the alliance should not be an option.

In an effort to return the alliance to a firmer footing, the U.S. should pursue three parallel lines of effort. First, it needs a strategy for the South China Sea designed to dissuade China and others from engaging in destabilizing behavior and to advance peaceful outcomes to disputes. American officials should explain how such a strategy sits within the Trump administration's broader vision of a "free and open" Indo-Pacific, and make the case that, although it has shifted to a more competitive approach to relations with China, it has done so in order to avoid open conflict over the longer term. Washington wants a conflict with Beijing no more than Manila does.

Second, the U.S. should launch a sustained effort to remind the Philippines of the many benefits it receives from the alliance -- from territorial defense to assistance in combating terrorism and support for military modernization. The broader bilateral relationship is crucial for advancing the Philippines' economic development. This campaign should include policymakers, the legislature and society at large.

Third, the U.S. should be investigating whether Philippine skepticism of the treaty is predominantly a product of Duterte's anti-American animus or reflective of a broader shift. If there is a broader movement at work -- public polling, which consistently shows friendly attitudes toward America and the opposite toward China, suggests otherwise -- Washington will have to begin grappling with the prospect of a slow unwinding of the alliance.

Such an unwinding would make it far easier for China to dominate the South China Sea, to send armed vessels and aircraft into the Western Pacific unchallenged, to threaten the U.S. territories of Guam and Hawaii and to send nuclear-armed submarines on patrol from their base on Hainan island, at the western end of China's South China Sea coast.

It would likewise hamper American efforts to counter terrorism in Southeast Asia. Both countries should seek to avoid such an outcome, but it appears that the Duterte administration may be heading down that path. The alliance crisis that Pompeo hoped to avert may be upon us.

Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.

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