By Martin Sadongdong
The United States (US) and the Philippines are seeking to revise the 68-year-old mutual defense treaty (MDT) to adapt to the changing environment and ensure peace and stability in the Indo Pacific region.
In a top-level meeting at Camp Aguinalso in Quezon City Tuesday afternoon, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reiterated that the mutual defense treaty is applicable to the entire Pacific region, including the South China Sea.
“I was actually the one who first put forth the idea of revisiting the MDT because in my opinion, it has been made at the height of the Korean war and the situation then compared to now is different. We are actually in discussion first on what to look out for in my proposal,” Lorenzana said in a press conference after the meeting.
The country’s Defense chief said the talks will be further discussed in one of the meetings between the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) sometime this year.
“That has to be taken up [MDT revision]. I don’t know what will be the outcome, it will be a joint cooperative endeavor,” Lorenzana said.
The MDT was signed in 1951 between the US and Philippines, with the overall accord saying both countries shall support each other if either were to be attacked by a third party.
The proposal to revise the MDT comes amid mounting criticisms on the ambiguity of some of its provisions, one of which is the definition of the term “metropolitan Philippines.”
In the MDT, it was stated that an attack to each of the metropolitan countries will trigger the MDT, but it was not clearly defined what part of the metro Philippines it covers.
Both the Philippines and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Lorenzana earlier proposed that the term should include territories that are being claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea. The proposal to revise the MDT was announced in 2018.
Esper cited the overwhelming reaction of most participants in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defence Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) held in Bangkok, Thailand recently where they expressed concern over China’s “excessive claims” in the region.
“The Secretary [Lorenzana] and I came back from Bangkok where we have a very important meeting of the ADMM plus members if you will, and the general theme that I took from our formal plenary discussion is that most participants in that room are very concerned about China’s excessive claims in the region,” Esper said.
“There is a lack of compliance with international laws and norms and they are concerned about the course of tactics used by Beijing throughout the region to advance their interests,” he added.
The US Defense Secretary pointed out that affected countries should take a “very public posture” to assert their sovereign rights and emphasize the importance of international law in the region.
“The signal that we are trying to send is that we all stand with international laws and I think China should abide by them as well, that acting collectively is the best way to send that message,” Esper said.
Lorenzana and Esper also emphasized the importance of the Philippines and US’ strengthened partnership.
They discussed proposals to support US efforts to help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines, improve maritime security capabilities and domain awareness, and provide rapid humanitarian assistance during calamities.
They also reaffirmed their commitment to counter terrorism and violent extremism.
Esper’s visit is part of his Indo-Pacific region tour which includes, aside from the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.