The Philippines should review an outdated defense treaty with the United States and avoid unnecessarily being dragged to war in case of conflict between Washington and China over the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday.
Lorenzana’s statement came just days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Manila to personally assure President Rodrigo Duterte that Washington would come to the Philippines’ aid in case a shooting war erupts in the highly disputed sea region.
He said that despite the assurance, provisions of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951, remain vague and could cause “confusion and chaos” during a crisis.
“The fact that the security environment now is so vastly different and much more complex than the bipolar security construct of the era when the MDT was written necessitates a review of the treaty,” Lorenzana said in a statement.
“The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future,” Lorenzana said.
“But the United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war,” he added, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Last week, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin met with his U.S. counterpart and said afterward that he was assured Washington would come to the country’s aid “in the event an act of aggression” is committed against Manila, its longtime Asian ally.
But Lorenzana on Tuesday contradicted Locsin’s pronouncement, arguing that when the Philippine Senate ended the lease agreements for the Clark and Subic air and naval bases in Luzon, the country’s largest island, in 1992, Manila effectively “lost its security umbrella.”
“A couple of years after the U.S. left the bases, the Chinese began their aggressive actions in Mischief Reef – not an armed attack, but it was aggression just the same,” he said. “The U.S. did not stop it.”The Chinese first began encroaching in the South China Sea in the mid-1990s at Mischief Reef, about 130 miles west of the Philippines and clearly within its exclusive economic zone. Since then, China has reportedly installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three of the Spratly Islands west of the Philippines.
The Philippine government on Monday said that it was also verifying reports over the weekend that Filipino fishermen were being driven away every time they approached sandbars in their traditional fishing grounds near Philippine-claimed Pag-asa Island, also known as Thitu Island, about 190 km (119 miles) northwest of Mischief Reef.
Filipino defense department officials recently noted that dozens of Chinese ships had been anchoring near Pag-asa, the Tagalog word for hope.
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. The region also is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Brunei occupies none of the islands.
On Tuesday, a small group of leftist activists protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila and called on Washington and Beijing to leave the Philippines. The group was allowed to protest near the embassy, as a phalanx of riot police stood guard. They later dispersed voluntarily.
During a joint news conference in Manila on Friday, Pompeo assured the Philippine government that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the (South China Sea) would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our MDT.”