How Washington’s ambiguity in South China Sea puts the Philippine-US alliance at a crossroads


Richard Heydarian writes that the Philippines could ‘downgrade’ its long-standing association with the US if Washington remains unclear on its commitments in disputed waters

“I announce my separation from the United States,” the tough-talking Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte declared during his first state visit to China. Two years later, the Philippines has formally called for a formal review of its decades-old alliance with the US.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, formerly a long-time Washington defence attaché, made it clear that Manila isn’t ruling out the abrogation of the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty.

While the review could serve as a springboard for fine-tuning the alliance, which has been hobbled by disagreements and commitment issues in recent years, it’s ultimately a double-edged sword.

After all, proponents of warmer ties with Beijing could very well lobby for downgrading the Philippine-US alliance in favour of strategic neutrality, especially if both parties failed to agree on the necessary upgrades.

Proponents of warmer ties with Beijing could lobby for downgrading the Philippine-US alliance in favour of strategic neutrality, Richard Heydarian writes. Photo: Xinhua
The call for review was met by shock and disbelief among many observers, who expected an immediate and sustained thaw in bilateral relations after Washington returned the famed Balangiga Bells to the Philippines.

Duterte warmly welcomed the return of the historical artefacts, which were taken by American forces from a Philippine church during the colonial period, as a necessary closure to a dark chapter in the countries’ shared history.

South China Sea clash is biggest worry for Philippine firms

There was even a hope that Duterte, who has already made three official visits to China, would finally entertain the White House’s long-standing invitation for a state visit.

Instead, it seems even the Philippine defence establishment, which has been the bedrock of the bilateral alliance, is showing growing frustration over American strategic ambivalence.

The Philippine defence chief openly lamented Washington’s “ambivalent” position on the exact coordinates of its commitments to the Philippines, especially in light of the South China Sea disputes. He explicitly questioned whether the Mutual Defence Treaty is “still relevant to our security” instead of just serving “the interest of other nations”, namely the US.

The first problem with the alliance is the very text of the treaty. According to Article V of the MDT, “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

Yet, Washington has equivocated on what exactly it considers to be part of “metropolitan” Philippines and the “island territories under its jurisdiction”.

Aquino slams SCS resource-sharing deal with Beijing

To the Philippines’ horror, its ally largely stood by when China occupied Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994 as well as during the months-long Philippine-China naval stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.