United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper met with Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana at Camp Aguinaldo last Tuesday. After their meeting, they both said there may be a need to revise the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951.
American forces came to the Philippines in 1898 when, in the course of the global Spanish-American War, Admiral George Dewey and his fleet turned up in Manila Bay, destroyed the Spanish naval forces there, and landed in Manila.
The US held on to the former Spanish colony, later signing a Treaty of Paris with Spain in 1898 under which the US took over the islands from Spain for ₱20 million, although the Philippine revolutionary forces of General Emilio Aguinaldo had already proclaimed the independence of the First Philippine Republic on June 12, 1896.
Despite the antagonism and discord of this beginning, Philippine-American relations developed in succeeding years, becoming particularly close in World War II, when Filipino troops fought with the Americans against the Japanese. Soon after the war, the US gave up the Philippines, granting it independence on July 4, 1946, but kept its bases in the country. In 1951, the two countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty. But in 1991, the Philippine Senate voted against a proposal to extend the US presence by 10 more years.
Relations in the succeeding years remained close, still covered by the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, in which the two countries pledged to assist each other to resist any armed attack “on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific.”
This is the Mutual Defense Treaty which Secretaries Lorenzana and Esper want to revise, in the wake of recent developments, especially in the South China Sea. There, the Philippines has laid claim to certain islands which are also claimed by China. These include Panatag near Zambales and Mischief Reef west of Palawan, where China has constructed a runway and military facilities. China is claiming some 80 percent of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and this wide area includes islands also claimed by the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
In the absence of an international agreement, these remain unsupported claims. Our traditional ally, the US, only asserts its claim to freedom of navigation in international waters, as it keeps sending its warships through the South China Sea.
When Secretaries Lorenzana and Exper cited the need to revise the Mutual Defense Treaty, they noted the ambiguity of some of its provisions. What, for instance, is the Philippines’ “metropolitan territory” that the US vows to defend? The US is also supposed to defend “island territories in the Pacific” – which lies east of the Philippines.
Would that cover island territories in the South China Sea – which lies west of the country?
At the start of his administration, President Duterte embraced China and Russia and declared the country’s “separation” from the US. To this day, however, the Philippines has remained a close ally of the US, a position affirmed by repeated opinion surveys of the Filipino people. It is with this firm support of the people that Secretaries Lorenzana and Esper have been meeting and now seek to clear up any ambiguous provision in the two nations’ mutual defense pact.