MANILA/WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has assured the Philippines that a defense treaty would apply if its vessels or planes are attacked in the South China Sea, sparking a debate within the Southeast Asian nation over whether it should drop plans to review the 1951 agreement.
“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the U.S.,” Pompeo said at briefing Friday with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin in Manila. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels will trigger mutual defense obligations” under the treaty.
In response, Locsin said there was no need to review the U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, adding Pompeo and President Donald Trump assured that “We have your back.” Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the statements showed the U.S. was backing Philippine claims to disputed parts of the South China Sea, and said American troops could be deployed in a shooting war.
“This is the first time that U.S. made a policy statement that any attack on any Philippine vessel is tantamount to attacking the U.S.,” President Rodrigo Duterte’s office said in a statement.
But Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who had called initially for the defense treaty to be re-examined, wasn’t convinced and said the review would continue.
“If we find that there’s no need, then we will tell them to drop the review, but our people are still doing it,” Lorenzana told reporters Friday. He noted that ambiguities in the treaty remained unclear, such as if China occupies an island claimed by the Philippines. “Where will that fall under?” he said.
The conflicting statements out of Manila come while ties are improving between the U.S. and the Philippines, which shifted toward China after Duterte took power in 2016. Duterte has previously questioned whether the U.S. would defend the Philippines if China seizes disputed shoals and reefs in the South China Sea — skepticism that has persisted in Manila for decades.
The treaty says it covers armed attacks “on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” But a U.S. diplomatic cable from 1976, since declassified, states that the treaty does not cover disputed areas such as the Spratly Islands.
Pompeo fell short of acknowledging Philippine sovereignty over the reefs and atolls it occupies in the disputed South China Sea, and didn’t explicitly say they were covered by the treaty.
“The U.S. has left itself some ambiguity,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Pompeo’s comment goes some way towards assuaging Philippine concerns over whether the U.S. would come to its assistance if its armed forces came under attack from China in the South China Sea.”
Beijing has built seven artificial structures in the Spratly Islands where Manila also has claims. Philippine fishermen and vessels resupplying Philippine-occupied features in the waters have also been harassed by Chinese vessels.
“What is important about this is that they are saying it in public and under the spotlight,” said Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: U.S., China and the Struggle for Western Pacific.”
The Obama administration “was diffident about giving assurances to the Philippines in a way that could slight China,” Heydarian said. “This administration doesn’t have any problems with that.”
Pompeo also warned the Philippines against using Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to build up its 5G network, saying its infrastructure backbone must be free and transparent.
While the Southeast Asian nation will make its own decision on how to proceed, Pompeo said the Philippines runs the risk that the U.S. “may not be able to operate in certain environments if there is Huawei technology adjacent to that.”