The United States reiterated its commitment Tuesday to a nearly 70-year-old military pact with the Philippines, as the defense chiefs of both countries met in Manila and pledged to boost the treaty amid Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea.
After meeting his Philippine counterpart here, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also urged Southeast Asian nations affected by China’s claims in the disputed sea region “to take a very public posture and to assert” their territorial rights.
“Today, I reiterated the United States’ commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which applies to the entire Pacific region, including the South China Sea,” Esper said, underscoring that Washington’s alliance with Manila “remains strong.”
The treaty, which requires both nations to help defend each other during an attack by an external party, acts as a buffer for the Philippines, a former American colony.
The comments by Esper marked the second time this year that a senior American government official had assured the Philippines it would support Manila to defend itself in a crisis.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to the 1951 treaty when he said Washington would back the Philippines militarily if necessary over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the SCS would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our MDT,” Pompeo said at the time, referring to the treaty.
On Tuesday, Esper met with Philippine defense chief Delfin Lorenzana after arriving from Bangkok, where the South China Sea was high on the agenda of meetings of defense chiefs from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other countries, including the U.S. and China.
After his meeting with Lorenzana, Esper told reporters that Washington had carried out more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea during the past year than the previous two decades.
He also said that some ASEAN members had expressed their concerns “about China’s excessive claims in the region.” He did not elaborate.
“I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasize the importance of law,” he said.
The meetings in the Thai capital ended on Monday amid concerns over Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions in the sea region. These were highlighted this week by a Chinese move to deploy its first domestically-built aircraft carrier to the disputed waters after the ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait as part of “equipment tests and routine training,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
On Monday, Esper met in Bangkok with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, who urged Washington to “stop flexing muscles” in the South China Sea
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which about U.S. $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own claims to parts of those waters.
While in principle all of the claimants have agreed to refrain from carrying out actions that would further inflame respective territorial disputes, Beijing raised regional tensions in recent years after it transformed contested shoals into missile-protected islands, with military-grade runways on three reefs.
Since he took power three years ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has adapted a defeatist tone regarding China, repeatedly saying that the Philippines couldn’t do anything to deter the bigger nation. Instead, he has courted Beijing by not implementing a 2016 verdict by an international arbitral tribunal that ruled against China’s vast claims to the sea region.
Duterte’s government has also agreed to a joint exploration deal in the South China Sea with Beijing, despite calls by Philippine nationalist groups to be wary of China’s expression of friendliness.
Washington, Manila to share anti-terror information
In a joint statement, Lorenzana and Esper also vowed to join forces in fighting terrorism as they agreed to share military intelligence.
“The United States and the Philippines will build upon the existing foundation by continuing to improve information sharing and enhancing cooperation to prevent terrorist attacks and the transit of foreign terrorist fighters in the Philippines,” the statement said.
The United States, along with Australia, provided crucial intelligence data, which helped the Philippine military defeat Islamic State-linked militants who took over the southern city of Marawi for five months in 2017.
The militant siege and the battle with government forces that ensued killed more than 1,200 people – mostly militants – and destroyed Marawi, once a beautiful lakeshore city in southern Mindanao island that Islamic State had wanted to turn into its caliphate in Southeast Asia.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.