Why US may not come to Philippines' rescue in Spratlys

Posted at 04/30/14 2:34 AM

MANILA (UPDATE)– While it is certain that the US will defend the Philippines, it is not clear if Washington's commitment includes the West Philippine Sea, which is the subject of the simmering maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing, a political analyst said on Tuesday.

"The message is clear - the US will defend the Philippines. What's not clear is if that guarantee includes the West Philippine Sea," Prof. Herman Kraft told ANC's "Beyond Politics."

Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty, which was signed on August 30, 1951 in Washington D.C. between representatives of the Philippines and the US, states, in part: "…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."

It does not mention the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Meanwhile, Kraft said President Barack Obama merely reiterated the US commitment to defending the Philippines.

"[There’s] nothing new in how it was worded," he said.

Former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III, meanwhile, said the US will stand by the Philippines in case of an external armed attack.

"The question now is, what happens if it's not an external armed attack? Because what China did in Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal and now in Ayungin was not armed in any way," he said.

According to Alunan, Obama said what was expected of him to say, as it doesn't make sense for him to pick a fight with China.

"I think that as far as defending ourselves against any provocation by China in the West Philippine Sea, I think the defense of the Philippines rests squarely on our shoulders. It's a good thing that we do have defense agreements with friendly nations, but this should not be the primary defense shield. As far as I am concerned, being a patriot and a nationalist, I think it behooves us to put in our minds and in our hearts that the primary responsibility to defend the country is purely Filipino, rests on our shoulders... They have to invest in our national defense. They have to invest in our national security, which is a very broad umbrella which covers human and ecological security other than or in addition to civil defense and national defense," he said.

Another political scholar, Prof. Renato de Castro, looked at Obama's Asian trip as a form of strategic rebalancing, a way of sending a message to China that the US is still present in the Pacific.

"I think the US is sending a message that it is multidimensional. The visit to Japan is economic, the visit to South Korea was meant to rebuild ties and alliances. The focus of the visit to Malaysia is ASEAN, and the visit to the Philippines is the security dimension."

He added that Obama gave the Filipinos a reaffirmation, emphasizing the alliance that was forged by blood, through the battles in Bataan and during World War II.

Alunan, for his part, said he was not surprised with Obama's statement about the US' commitment to the country, saying that this commitment stands even without the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

"There were no surprises. He said what was expected of him. The US commitment has been there in the Mutual Defense Treaty since 1951."

This point of view is shared by Kraft and de Castro, adding that what transpired is typical of what a state visit should be.

US-China relations in the Pacific

Both Kraft and de Castro agreed that Obama's Asian tour had less to do with China than it has to do with the US.

Kraft said that the visit was a reaffirmation of reasserting US power in Asia. He said the US might have lost its credibility in the region after it failed to attend the East Asia Summit in 2013.

He added that the US has also been distracted by all its commitments to other countries, like Afghanistan, making it less focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

"China has been challenging US since 2008, since the financial meltdown, when Bush was busy with Iraq and Afghanistan. The visit here is in a way an answer to China, saying 'No, you cannot push us away from the region,'" de Castro said.

Kraft believes that China's relationship with the US has always been very cautious, by presenting the idea that they want a peaceful relationship with the US.

"There is willingness to share the region, but the US might not be ready to share or agree to that kind of arrangement."

'Tragedy of geography'

When asked about how EDCA will affect the country's relationship with China, Kraft, Alunan and De Castro all agreed that it will all depend on how China will react.

For de Castro, the Philippines has to suffer the consequence of its geographic location, being on the fringes of the Pacific, which the US thinks is an American lake, and as the first island chain that China has to penetrate to get to the Pacific.

Alunan added that the new agreement is a means, but not as a strategy, to improve the country's national defense.

"Treaties should not be a major defense strategy. The primary responsibility to defend the country lies on the shoulders of the Filipinos," Alunan said.

Alunan also said Congress has to invest in the country's national defense, and to look at EDCA as a way to build the country's own defense system.

"We’ve been mendicants for so long, because of Uncle Sam. It is time to stand on our own two feet. We had the opportunity when the MBA ended in 1991, but we failed to stand up. The EDCA is a 10-year agreement, it gives us a window, and if we fail to stand up, I’ll be very disappointed."