Photo Source: CNN Philippines

Aristotle advised that if we are to understand anything we must “observe its beginning and its development.” Unfortunately, amid the tumult surrounding Secretary Lorenzana’s pledge to review the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), an appreciation for the historic origins and development of the U.S.-Philippine alliance has been sadly absent. Although clarifying the rights and obligations contained within the MDT represents a worthwhile undertaking, attempting to do so while ignoring the treaty’s historic context and evolution would be futile. To that end, it is useful to look at the specific charges currently levelled against the MDT by its critics and to identify the historical background of these contentions. This perspective provides both a deeper understanding of U.S. policy towards the Philippines and also helps contextualize the current dispute.

The Republic of the Philippines’ relations with North Korea are influenced by four critical factors: political alignment with the United States, realpolitik, international norms, and risks to Philippine national security and interests. In other words, historical, functional, normative, and strategic factors have been of greater or lesser significance at different junctures in the nearly twenty-year formal Philippines-North Korea relationship.

Photo Source: Aljazeera

The revitalized relations between the Philippines and China can be attributed to President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy shift. The warm bilateral ties is a sharp contrast to the frozen relations during the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III. Duterte opted for a more accommodating approach towards China that led to a dramatic turn in the bilateral ties--- from a confrontational stance to a more amiable outlook.

Proof of these renewed relations were the exchange of state visits by the two countries’ leaders. Duterte visited China early into his presidency in October 2016, while President Xi Jinping visited the Philippines in November 2018. Xi’s latest trip was the first state visit by a Chinese president to the country in 13 years, solidifying both countries’ restored trust and confidence.

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.