In the wake of the recently more aggressive posturing of the United States against China in relation to the disputed South China Sea territories, I decided to do some research regarding how this might play out in case China does not back down.
My main concern is that any conflict involving these two superpowers over these islands would automatically draw us in. Not just as a matter of geography, since we are the closest among the three countries to the battle zone, but also because we – more than the US – are actual claimants to these islands.
Based on this, I started looking into the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 since this document has been repeatedly referred to as the go-to agreement in defining if and how the US will come to the aid of the Philippines.
During the previous administration of Noynoy Aquino, the treaty was used as a salve to ease the fears of many Filipinos against going against China. “Don’t worry,” they said “we have nothing to fear. The US has our backs. We have a treaty with them.”
In an interview almost a year ago, then ambassador Philip Goldberg also reiterated that should there be a “shooting war,” the US will abide by the Mutual Defense Treaty. “The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States. President Obama, when he was here, said that the treaty is ironclad. We take seriously our responsibilities, our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.”
Unfortunately Goldberg (true to form) may not have been honest with his assurances. According to documents available on Wikileaks, the US government has “found nothing in (the) negotiating history of the mutual defense treaty” to indicate that it was “intended to extend to such forces (of the Philippines) as may be stationed in notoriously disputed territories such as Spratleys.”
Even more worrying for the Philippines in case there is an actual “shooting war,” as Goldberg envisioned, is the fact that the US has already determined that “even if (the) treaty applied, the type of action required to meet this type of “common danger” under Art. IV, might well be far different from that required for attacks on the Philippines itself.”
In other words, if China had decided to seize and occupy all of the Spratlys back then, the US would not have acted at all. Which would again have left the Philippines to the mercy of invaders while its supposed allies twiddled their thumbs and took their sweet time in responding to a crisis simply because it was happening thousands of miles away from their own homes.
While this position was articulated back in 1974 in response to an urgent dispatch sent by then US ambassador to the Philippines, William Sullivan to secretary of state Henry Kissinger after China occupied portions of the Paracel Islands in January of that year, nothing since has indicated that anything has changed.
Aside from the strong words coming from the Trump administration, there is nothing concrete that America has done to show that it truly values the Philippines as an “ally and a partner.” While I am more hopeful with this new administration than the last one, there is still a long way to go before the rift between the Philippines and the US are mended.
In the meantime, President Duterte’s foreign policy shift away from the shadow of the Americans has become even more significant. After all, if the treaty we’ve been clinging on to as a symbol of our alliance is nothing more than a sham, then we might as well take our chances elsewhere.