Old letter of US envoy details US pledge to defend West PH Sea

MANILA, Philippines – What good is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) if there is no categorical statement from the US that once the disputed territories in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) come under attack, Washington will come to the defense of the Philippines?

The House of Representatives committee hearing on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) on Wednesday, May 14, brought the discussion back to the one big question: Does the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) cover the disputed territories in the West Philippines Sea?

"I find it disturbing that we have an agreement that is very unclear about what we all know to be the principal purpose of this agreement as articulated by administration spokesmen, which is supposed to be the defense of Philippine territory," said Akbayan party-list Representative Walden Bello. 

The Philippines sought US military assistance in the wake of escalating maritime disputes over the West Philippine Sea. The panel was also grilled by senators on Tuesday, May 13. (READ: 'EDCA allows US military to build anywhere in PH' and Senators pinpoint 7 flaws in EDCA)

Ambassador Hubbard's letter

Bello asked the panel for "specific comments during the negotiations... that say the US will consider an armed attack on the Kalayaan Island Groupo as an attack that the US must respond to because it is in the MDT."

Panel member Ambassador Eduardo Malaya pulled out a 1999 letter of former US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard to then Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon.

Hubbard's letter to Siazon cited a statement issued by then US Defense Secretary William Cohen that addressed whatever vagueness the MDT has. 

"Last August, in response to questions issued during his visit to the Philippines, US Defense Secretary William Cohen stated that US considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area," Hubbard's letter reads.

Hubbard's letter sought to correct a newspaper story quoting then US Pacific Command Dennis Blair that the West Philippines Sea is not covered under the MDT. 

"I'm concerned that US policy has been seriously misconstrued... As you can see the body of the article does not support the headline US offers no security blanket," Hubbard wrote.

But Bello said even Hubbard's letter was not enough. It still fell short of categorically stating that US will defend territories in the West Philippine Sea.

"Ambassador Hubbard's statement simply says that the South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean. It is a specific statement that by nature is true. So I come back because this is a very important position with respect to this recent agreement," Bello said.

Bello cited a more recent statement by retired US Navy Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt.

McDevitt wrote in a 2013 paper that the MDT "does not obligate Washington to take sides over the sovereignty question of Scarborough Shoal." 

Bukidnon Representative Jose Miguel Zubiri also questioned the weight of both statements. 

US President Barack Obama could have eased doubts during his visit but he evaded the question coming from the media. He did give a strong statement recognizing US obligation under the MDT to defend the Philippines against external armed attacks, but he was not ready to give a statement about the West Philippine Sea the way he gave Japan a categorical statement on the Senkaku Island. (READ: How far will the US go to defend the Philippines? and Obama: US commitment to PH 'ironclad')

The question was not a matter for the EDCA to address. EDCA sets the rules to govern two new activities with US troops: construction of military facilities inside Philippine bases and the storage and preposition of defense assets.

Panel chairman Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said it was not discussed when Bello asked him if the negotiating panel talked about it. 

MDT language

Signed in 1951, the MDT obligates the US and the Phiippines to defend each other in cases of external armed attacks. The treaty itself is not categorical about the islands in the West Philippine Sea, however.

The treaty covers external armed attacks on "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."

Categorical statement from the US

The first categorical statement from an active military officer came in February 2014 – from US Navy chief Admiral Jonathan Greenert. This was not discussed during the hearing.

He was asked if the US would help the Philippines in the event that China decides to invade territories in the West Philippine Sea, say Pag-asa Island. Greenert replied: “Of course we would help you.”

But the more important part of Greenert’s statement was what followed, a security official interviewed by Rappler said.

Greenert continued: “I don’t know what that help would be specifically. We have an obligation because we have a treaty. But I don’t know in what capacity that help is….,” Greenert said. 

The assistance of the US Navy in the tense mission to rotate troops trapped for 5 months in the disputed Ayungin Shoal helped eased doubts. Using a telephoto lens, a photographer who joined the mission to Ayungin Shoal spotted a plane marked "US Navy" directly above the civilian ship while they were on their way to the shoal. (READ: US helped PH Navy in Ayungin mission– Rappler.com