To renew the US-Philippines relationship, start with ditching the American-centric lens


The Philippines is considering a review of its 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the US. Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana said a review could look at ways to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it”. The possibility that the Philippines might withdraw from the treaty has caused considerable consternation in US-Asia policy circles.

Some analysts have made suggestions that might help rectify the situation. But they maintain a predominantly one-sided perspective on US-Philippines relations by focusing almost exclusively on US interests in maintaining the treaty. They refuse to recognise the reality that the circumstances – and the Philippines – have changed, and so must the US attitude and the treaty itself, to be compatible with the current political and strategic environment.

The treaty establishes and underpins the US-Philippines military alliance. It obliges both parties to “act to meet the common dangers” of “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”. That seems pretty clear.

But, despite decades of Philippine requests for it to do so, the US has refused to clarify if this means that it would come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of a conflict with China in the South China Sea.

Strengthening the Philippines’ doubts, the treaty provides that, in such a scenario, the two would “consult” and that such an “attack will be acted upon in accordance with their constitutional processes”. The fear is that the US could use this clause to prevaricate, delay and even evade any military response.

Compounding the concern, under US President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy, it is not at all clear that the US will risk blood and treasure in a confrontation with China on debatable claims to tiny rocks in the South China Sea, especially if the Philippines provokes such a clash.

Indeed, when the Philippines and China confronted each other in 2012 near the Scarborough Shoal, the US failed to come to the Philippines’ aid and, as a result, China now controls the shoal.

Further, China is not likely to attack Philippine navy vessels but instead uses fishing vessels as maritime militia to block and harass them, presenting both the Philippines and the US with a dilemma over whether to use force.