Philippines, US dialogue missed chance to address South China Sea ‘grey zone’ — analyst


MANILA, Philippines — While the Philippines and the United States reaffirmed their defense cooperation in their last dialogue, the two countries missed some opportunities to address issues in the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea.

In a joint statement after the conclusion of their 8th bilateral strategic dialogue, Manila and Washington recalled the assurance of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that any armed attack on Philippine forces in the South China Sea will trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

Gregory Poling, director of Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), noted that this was the same language used in the US Indo-Pacific strategy report last month.

“So consider it now set in stone,” Poling said on Twitter.

However, the joint statement from the two allied countries does not address the status of Scarborough or Panatag Shoal off the coast of Zambales province.

In July 2016, the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal ruled that fishermen from the Philippines, China and other countries had traditional fishing rights in Scarborough Shoal.

Since the landmark ruling was issued three years ago, China Coast Guard vessels stationed at the shoal have been allowing Filipino fishermen to operate along the exterior of Scarborough Shoal but not inside the lagoon.

According to Poling, the “US missed an opportunity here to include some language to the effect that the allies will not accept any permanent consturction there.”

“But that one will require more socialization [within] the Pentagon/State,” he added.

Poling also noted that the recently concluded dialogue between the Philippines and the US failed to address the concerns of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana over China’s encroachment into Philippine waters.

Lorenzana earlier expressed concern over the presence of hundreds Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be part of Beijing’s maritime militia, near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.

The AMTI director, however, clarified that the two countries can still clarify these concerns in the future.

“Also doesn’t directly address Lorenzana’s concerns about grey zone/militia threats. But leaves open the door to future clarifications that ‘any attack’ includes militia violence or even threats of violence,” Poling said.

Lorenzana has been calling for a review of the provisions of the MDT, stressing that the treaty should cover the West Philippine Sea amid rising tensions in the region.

In a press conference earlier this week, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said the two countries are in talks to strengthen the MDT.

“There is a mechanism — the mutual defense board — where the two sides talk about, not necessarily issues, but things to strengthen our relationship about our defense treaty,” Romualdez said, adding that the board is scheduled to meet in September.