U.S. reaffirms pact to defend PH in case of West Philippine Sea attack

MANILA, Philippines – The United States reaffirmed that it would defend Philippine forces in case of an armed attack in the South China Sea, including the portion Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea.

Diplomats from both countries “recalled [US] Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo’s statements on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) during his March 2019 visit to Manila, particularly the clarification that the South China Sea (SCS) is in the Pacific, and that any armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the SCS will trigger Article IV of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT),” a joint statement from the 8th US-Philippines Bilateral Strategic Dialogue said on Tuesday, July 16.

Article IV of the MDT states that the Philippines and the US would come to each other’s aid in case either of them falls under an armed attack in the “Pacific area.” The succeeding provision, Article V, extends the agreement’s coverage over either country's “metropolitan territory” and “island territories” in the Pacific.

The Philippines had long sought clarification from the US whether these provisions would apply to an armed attack on Filipino forces or communities in the West Philippine Sea.

Since December 2018, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has repeatedly called for a review of the MDT to assess whether the pact remains “relevant” to the country’s security and if so, to clarify its “vague” provisions.

Pompeo’s earlier assurance to Filipinos – “We have your back” – was a rare move from the US, which until then had refrained from categorically stating its position as the Philippines faced a growing security threat from China in the West Philippine Sea.

Security and defense were among the main items discussed in the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD), held in Manila on July 15 and 16.

However, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez said “there was no talk about [a] review” of the MDT during the meetings, although a "Mutual Defense Board" meets regularly to "strengthen" the two countries' defense partnership. It is set to convene in September, Romualdez added. 

Both sides said they agreed to continue expanding their defense cooperation by "improving defense infrastructure, updating personnel and logistics procedures, and increasing mutual communication and coordination on operational elements of regional security,” along with plans to “improve maritime domain awareness.”

The US has begun constructing facilities in at least one of the five Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The US earlier said it planned to build in two more.

"We will continue with EDCA, to strengthen that and make it work, for our mutual benefit,” Romualdez told reporters in an interview.

In their joint statement, both countries mentioned "freedom of navigation and overflight" in the West Philippine Sea, peaceful resolution of disputes according to international maritime law, and a pending code of conduct between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China in the South China Sea. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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