Will the US defend Philippines if China attacks?

Posted at 07/25/2012 10:58 PM | Updated as of 07/25/2012 11:15 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The US military might not come to the Philippines' aid if Chinese forces attack Filipino ships and claimed territory in the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, international affairs experts have warned.

While the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) requires Manila and Washington to support each other if either of the 2 countries are attacked by a third party, the United States has yet to make a full commitment with regard to the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).  

"The treaty text leaves the extent of US commitments open to interpretation," the ICG said in its latest report on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

"While the text calls for the US to respond to an armed attack against the Philippines, Manila only received 'vague  assurances' that Washington would uphold the treaty during the Scarborough standoff," the ICG added.

"Furthermore, the US has not confirmed whether the scope of the treaty covers contested territories in the South China Sea," said the Brussels-based organization, which advises governments and world bodies like the United Nations, European Union and World Bank on the prevention and resolution of armed conflicts.

It added that MDT predates the Philippines' territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, resulting in uncertainties how the US will interpret its application to disputed territories in the event of a conflict.

US neutral in Philippines-China dispute

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier said Washington is neutral in the Philippines-China dispute and is instead focused on ensuring free navigation, unimpeded commerce and stability in the West Philippine Sea.

The ICG also mentioned an analysis of  Asian affairs specialist Thomas Lum, who said in an April 2012 report for the Congressional Research Service that the US does not consider the MDT and subsequent renewals to extend to features in the West Philippine Sea. 

"Some Philippine officials have suggested or sought assurances that the treaty obliges the United States to come to the defense of the Philippines if China were to take disputed territories in the South China Sea by force, while some US interpretations limit US intervention to a foreign military attack on the main Philippine islands or upon Philippine military forces," Lum said.

However, he added, that "the Obama administration has not further specified the circumstances under which the US armed forces would intervene on behalf of the Philippines."

"The Manila Declaration of November 16, 2011, did not lay out specifically the circumstances in which the United States would defend Philippine claims in the South China Sea," he said.

DFA: US will defend Philippines

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has issued an official statement saying the Obama administration, through Clinton, renewed its "commitment to the defense of the Philippines" if China attacks Filipino forces in the Spratly Islands.

Del Rosario also said Clinton, during the "Two Plus Two" meeting between officials of the 2 countries in Washington, D.C. in April this year, "reiterated that the U.S. "reaffirms our commitment and obligations under the mutual defense treaty."

He said even without an actual armed attack against either the Philippines and the U.S., Article III of the MDT allows officials of the 2 countries to discuss threats in the Pacific.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino and US President Barack Obama reaffirmed their commitment to the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, as well as to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region, during their bilateral meeting in the White House in June this year.

The White House said Aquino briefed Obama on the situation in the West Philippine Sea during their one-on-one dialogue. 

In a statement issued after their meeting, the US leader pledged Washington's support for the upgrade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the building of a "minimum credible defense posture" for Manila.

Without going into details, Obama said he had discussions with Aquino on various security and military issues, particularly with regard to the US pivot back to Asia, "and reminding everybody that, in fact, the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Benigno Aquino take center stage at a lunch she hosted for the Philippine leader in Washington, D.C. in June.

Washington must clarify position

Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies told the National Bureau of Asian Research that Manila has sought clarification from Washington on how the MDT applies to situations in the West Philippine Sea.

"Manila seems to think that the MDT covers contingencies in the area, whereas the US position is that the Spratlys are not covered by the MDT because they were only formally claimed by the Philippines in 1978, 27 years after the treaty was signed. However, under the terms of the MDT, both sides would be obliged to consult if the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) came under attack in the South China Sea," he said.

"Although the United States has given strong rhetorical support to its alliance relationship with the Philippines, in the event of a clash in the South China Sea U.S. military assistance to the AFP would be 'scenario dependent,'" Storey added.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, believes that Washington must clarify its position on the MDT with regard to the Philippines-China territorial dispute.

In a May 2012 analysis, "Scarborough Shoal and Safeguarding American Interests," Lohman said previous administrations have issued clear statements on Washington's responsibilities of its ally is attacked.

He said in 1979, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance confirmed in an official letter to Philippine Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo that the MDT covers an “attack on Philippines armed forces, public vessels or aircraft” even if such attack does not occur in the “metropolitan territory of the Philippines or island territories under its jurisdiction.”

"US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard reaffirmed these assurances in 1999 during deliberations over the U.S.–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. He also stated unequivocally that 'the U.S. considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area.' This position has not changed," Lohman said.

He said the Obama administration must highlight its treaty commitments to the Philippines.

"The US should make clear to [China] officials privately that in the event of an armed PRC attack on Philippine 'public vessels,' the U.S. must invoke its treaty commitment to declare such action 'dangerous to its own peace and safety' and would initiate formal consultations with the Philippines to determine an appropriate course of action. The nature of its response will be dictated by the nature of the attack," Lohman said.