MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines and the United States should revise its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to counter China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea, analysts said.
Adrien Chorn and Monica Michiko Sato of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program noted that the existing treaty between the two countries is not clear on gray zone threats.
Chorn and Sato noted that gray zone threats can include a mix of conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare with other influencing methods.
“The United States and the Philippines should issue a joint statement on an elucidative and effective MDT that addresses gray zone threats and upholds the tribunal decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” the analysts said in an article published on the CSIS website.
According to the analysts, a revised MDT should be multi-level and similar to the defense readiness condition levels of the US.
The revised treaty should also include well-defined rules of engagement, rationale for escalation of force and appropriate consequences of Chinese actions.
“In doing so, the MDT would be revised to address China’s various actions in the South China Sea and to limit the range of Chinese activities that may be considered permissible,” the analysts said.
Doing so would improve Philippines-US relations and would also counter Chinese belligerence in the region, they said.
One of China’s “gray zone” tactics is deploying hundreds of paramilitary vessels in the vicinity of Pag-asa Island, where the Philippine government is upgrading its facilities.
Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island, one of the largest features in the Spratlys, have also been intimidating Filipino fishermen.
The Department of National Defense also reported that China’s Coast Guard vessels blocked Filipino civilian vessels conducting a resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, where the navy’s BRP Sierra Madre is grounded.
Chorn and Sato also mentioned other dimensions of China’s tactics, such as cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns and “debt traps” from “opaque” infrastructural investments.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has long been calling for a review on the decades-old MDT following Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea.
When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Manila in March, he assured the Philippines that any armed attack on Filipino forces in the South China Sea would trigger the agreement.
In response to this, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said there was no need to review the agreement between Manila and Washington.
“In vagueness lies uncertainty — a deterrent. Specificity invites evasion and actions outside the MDT framework,” Locsin said in March.
Lorenzana, on the other hand, contradicted Locsin’s “old theory of deterrence,” pointing out that the security environment in the Philippines has changed since the MDT was signed in 1951.
“I do not believe that ambiguity or vagueness of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty will serve as a deterrent. In fact, it will cause confusion and chaos during a crisis,” Lorenzana said.