In the past, concern about getting entangled in a conflict over competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea restrained U.S. support for its oldest treaty ally in Asia. Now, a long overdue reassurance raises Philippine worries about getting involved in a brewing great power competition.

Fresh from his trip to Hanoi for the second US-North Korea Summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Manila (February 28-March 1) to meet President Rodrigo Duterte and his counterpart, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. The proposed review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) called for by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was high on the agenda for the two-day visit. Considered the bedrock of the alliance, the review surprised many in the U.S. that may have expected an improvement in ties after the return of the three Balangiga bells last December. Manila’s rapprochement with Beijing, and increasing Chinese investments in critical Philippine infrastructure, also generated apprehension in Washington.

In his remarks during the joint press conference, Pompeo said that the South China Sea is part of the Pacific and that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.” This was the strongest statement clarifying the U.S. commitment in years. The former Central Intelligence Agency Director also took a swipe at Chinese state-backed enterprises and warned of risks associated with engaging Chinese technologies, such as Huawei’s 5G. Mention of energy cooperation was also salient, given the Philippines’ growing energy demand and high import dependence. Support for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and a partnership to address terrorism and illegal drug trade are also warmly received.

However, while welcomed, the timing of the pronouncement raised worries on the part of Manila. Such reassurance had long been sought and may have made more difference back in 2012 to 2014 when China was busy building artificial islands in the disputed sea while an arbitration case was ongoing. It was a letdown hard to recover from. Inability to respond to even earlier incidents such as the occupation of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995 long triggered the slide in the perceived relevance of the MDT. The failure of the alliance to meet such challenges led doubters to question the treaty’s deterrent value. As President Trump secured greater host nation support for U.S. troops in South Korea and greater defense spending from NATO allies, one wonders what U.S. will expect from Manila in return for the reassurance.

Another source of uneasiness for Manila is the expanding domains of US-China competition. The two powers are finding themselves on opposing sides on a broad range of issues, from navigational freedoms, trade, technology, space and cyberspace, among others. The increased frequency of U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) directed at challenging China’s expansive maritime claims and Beijing’s preparedness to respond raises the specter of collateral damage for Manila. This is especially so if such sorties will be joined by Philippine troops, or launched from Philippine bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Lorenzana said that it is not the lack of reassurance that worries him, but rather “being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want."

In the technology field, Pompeo’s statement that the U.S. “may not be able to operate in certain environments if there is Huawei technology adjacent to that” sounds like a warning which may go unheeded by the private sector. Philippine telecom companies, along with their peers in Thailand and Singapore, are gearing for the rollout of 5G in partnership with Huawei and other foreign partners. State-owned China Telecoms will also partner with a local company to constitute the new player in the Philippine telecoms market. It remains to be seen whether the Philippine government can compel local private firms to discard Huawei, which can provide technologically-advanced equipment at cheaper costs compared to its Western rivals. Pompeo did not clarify whether it is bilateral security cooperation that will be affected if government or the defense establishment procure or keep Huawei communications equipment. 

Improved bilateral relations with China enables the Philippines to undertake long-delayed repairs and enhancements of its civilian facilities in the Kalayaan (Spratlys) Islands without encountering much external interference. The presence of Chinese vessels near Philippine-held features appears intimidating, especially for local fishermen, but reports of actual harassments remain far and between. Local authorities are still ascertaining whether such a foreign presence is routine, or if they have other sneaky purposes in mind. Pompeo has not spoken how the MDT can be reconfigured to address such gray zone actions below the threshold of armed attack.

One may also wonder whether U.S. cooperation will be helpful, or if it will only unnecessarily escalate the situation given China’s strong reaction to U.S. FONOPS in the semi-enclosed sea. While far from ideal, the South China Sea has become calmer since 2016 and mechanisms, bilateral and regional, are being given full play. Should Beijing take the reassurance and consequent Philippine actions emanating from it as inviting a non-disputant, an assertive response may plunge the sea back into stormy waters.  

Continued friction may define US-China relations in the coming years. As such, balancing ties between the two major powers will constitute the greatest foreign policy test for successive Philippine administrations. While concerns about China’s growing presence and capabilities in the contested sea make for common interest, deepening the alliance and pursuing an independent foreign policy may create dilemmas for the Duterte government. In addition, China has emerged as a major factor in the Philippine economy and Beijing’s security concerns over the country’s alliance with the U.S. cannot simply be ignored.

Lucio Pitlo


Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, fellow at the University of the Philippines Korea Research Centre, lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at Ateneo de Manila University, and contributing editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal. This article first appeared in China-US Focus.