The Philippine-US Alliance in 2019
- Julio Amador III
At the tail end of 2018, two developments rocked the alliance between the Philippines and the United States. Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines’ secretary of national defense, called for the review of the Mutual Defense Treaty. In the United States, Secretary James Mattis resigned out of principle, to be temporarily replaced by his relatively inexperienced deputy. With US-China competition moving into high gear, coupled with the unstable domestic politics of the two allied countries, a review of the mutual defense treaty will pose a great challenge to alliance management.
Lorenzana publicly stated the fears and worries held by a large portion of the policymaking sector in the Philippines: that the United States will not defend its ally in the event of an attack in Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea, particularly the Kalayaan Island Group. Despite being a former colony, commonwealth, and current ally of the United States, the Philippines has not received any concrete assurances from Washington on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and it does not see the freedom of navigation operations of FONOPS as a serious strategy in deterring Chinese ambitions for regional primacy. Currently, Under the Mutual Defense Treaty, the allies will act to meet the common danger if either party suffers an armed attack on a) its metropolitan territory, b) the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific area, and c) its armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific area. However, it is not clear if the South China Sea is included in the ‘Pacific area’ under the Treaty, or if the disputed islands in the South China Sea are considered island territories of the Philippines. To be fair to US policymakers, this ambiguity allows them to stay clear of any potential adventurism on the part of allies, hence avoiding entanglement in disputes or even war where its interests are seen to be limited.