One of the hallmarks of the administration of Rodrigo Duterte is its promotion since 2016 of what it calls an “independent foreign policy.” This year, there were significant moves in this direction, which in the Philippines’ historical context meant adding some distance in the country’s relations with the United States, and diversifying partnerships both in the economic and security realms to include more countries, including what used to be seen as non-likeminded ones. Among other measures, there were calls for a review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) by no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who felt that the treaty provisions were no longer sufficiently clear in how they might help address contemporary security interests of the Philippines, amidst the fast-changing geopolitical environment and persistent internal and external challenges. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. publicly disagreed with Lorenzana on the need for a formal review, preferring the current state of ambiguity and flexibility in interpretation of the mutual obligations as a source of diplomatic advantage.
This paper offers three directions in which a review of the Mutual Defense Treaty might go, thereby reflecting the dynamics and realities of contemporary domestic and international politics. The first offers a scenario where the status quo is maintained and the MDT remains as it is. The outcome would likely be an agreement that is inadequate and myopic towards new situations such as so-called “gray zone” scenarios. Indeed, some MDT critics have long noted the need to re-examine the coverage of the treaty and the concomitant obligations of the two parties, while calling for a “deepening” of the alliance.
Meanwhile, the second scenario is one where the MDT is strengthened via a “widening” process instead, one that encourages the Philippines to fortify its security partnerships with not just the U.S., but with other countries. Finally, the third scenario requires confronting the possibility of the treaty being abrogated. In this instance, US-Philippine relations itself hangs in the balance because of the embeddedness of the military alliance in the broader framework of ties. Regional stability will also be put at risk if the already tenuous commitment of the U.S. to Southeast Asia were to be further shaken by removal of its treaty obligation to a longstanding ally.
Indeed, whether the MDT is maintained, strengthened, or scrapped depends on how well the Philippines uses its diplomatic toolkit to protect and advocate for its national interests, keeping in mind the growing regional security challenges