washingtonexaminer: If China attacks the Philippines in an effort to control a vital international shipping lane, the United States will help defend its ally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Friday.
“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security, and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States,” Pompeo said at a press conference in the Philippine capital of Manila. “[A]ny armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”
That treaty stipulates that the United States and the Philippines will “act to meet the common dangers” that arise from “an armed attack in the Pacific Area.” Pompeo’s declaration clarifies that the United States would treat a clash in the disputed waters of the South China Sea as an assault on the Philippines.
“The Trump administration has made a true commitment to making sure that these seas remain open,” he said. “We remain committed to supporting not only the Philippines in that effort — and the Philippines will need to do its part as well — but all the countries in the region so that these incredibly vital economic sea lanes are open and China does not pose a threat to closing them down.”
Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin was pleased to hear it. Speaking at the press conference with Pompeo, he said that “we are very assured. We are very confident that the United States has, in the words of Secretary Pompeo and the words of President Trump to our president, we have your back.”
Philippine officials have long worried that the United States would use the fact that sovereignty over the area is in dispute — China and the Philippines are just two of the handful of countries with claims to avoid its treaty responsibilities.
Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced in December his government was re-examining the Mutual Defense Treaty and the United States’ obligations under it, saying the Americans were “ambivalent” as to whether Philippine-occupied islands in the South China Sea counted as part of the country under the treaty. “That’s our problem because the United States has always said that they will not meddle into territorial disputes,” he said.
American security experts have had the same concern. If the United States didn’t come to the Philippines’ defense in an attack, as Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it last year, “then every ally that the U.S. has globally is going to start wondering what the price is on their head because the Philippines aren’t worth standing up for.”
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most important waterways, with about $3.4 trillion in international shipping trade going through annually, according to U.S. government analysts. Yet Philippine officials have at times seemed willing to accommodate China on the issue, tempted by the promise of Chinese investment in Philippine infrastructure and worried that a clash between U.S. and Chinese forces over the waterway could draw them into a destructive fight.
While in Manila, Pompeo met with the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose relationship with the United States deteriorated after President Obama called out the strongman over his poor human rights record. Duterte traveled to Beijing in October 2016 to announce his “separation from the United States” and discuss increased Chinese investment in his country.
Pompeo stressed that the “mutual defense agreement” obligates the Philippines to stand up for the alliance’s common interests against China. “They can’t claim an ocean,” Pompeo said of China in an interview with Channel News Asia. “That’s not the way international law works, and it is not good for the world. The United States is determined to ensure that these waterways remain open, and our freedom of navigation exercises are an element of that.”
Duterte’s spokesman was circumspect about Pompeo’s visit, suggesting the government might still seek to revisit the Mutual Defense Treaty. “There may be some kinks in the treaty that need to be clarified,” Salvador Panelo told reporters Friday. “It’s much better perhaps that it’s clear-cut in the treaty itself, so I think there’s still a need to review despite the policy statement.”
Lorenzana, Duterte’s defense secretary, has also questioned whether the Cold War-era treaty is “still relevant to our security.” But Locsin, the foreign minister, said Friday alongside Pompeo that he didn’t agree the treaty needed revision. The U.S.-Philippine alliance is “an arrangement that has contributed to regional peace, freedom, stability, and prosperity since it was formalized,” he said. “The key word is mutual. We have our end to hold up as well, and we need the means to do that from the United States.”