US asserts Mutual Defense Treaty applies to South China Sea amid tensions

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 23 2021 03:00 PM

MANILA— The United States has reaffirmed the applicability of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to the disputed and resource-rich South China Sea, just as it reiterated its commitment to assist the country in its efforts to modernize the armed forces.

In a virtual forum, Lindsey Ford, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said her government stands by its obligations to come to the country’s aid in case of any armed attack on Philippine armed forces in the Pacific, including the South China Sea.

This is under the treaty, which obligates both sides to help each other in case of external aggression. 

The US has been closely watching developments in the South China Sea, where China has ramped up militarization and island-building activities even as other claimant countries, including the Philippines, sought an end to incursions.

“We absolutely believe and affirm in no uncertain terms that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, aircrafts in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea, will trigger US obligations under the MDT and we fully intend to stand by these obligations,” Ford said in a virtual forum hosted by the Pacific Forum marking MDT's 70th anniversary.

Ford pointed out that US President Joe Biden's administration has reiterated the pact's applicability in the disputed waters, adding that the MDT is the foundation of the US-Philippine alliance. 

Beijing maintains constant presence of coast guard ships and fishing boats in the international waterway, within which is the West Philippine Sea, to assert its claim of sovereignty.

Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also have claims in the rich waters.

Without naming China, Ford said actions in the South China Sea “create new threats to countries’ economic security, defense and sovereignty."

The US official added that the United States is committed to security cooperation and security assistance activities to support modernization efforts of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). 

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we work alongside the Philippines to make sure that they have the necessary capabilities to defend its own interest and for us, collectively, the alliance has the ability to address the new threats and challenges that you see in the security environment,” Ford noted.

Article V of the 1951 MDT states that “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 Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

Former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo first said in 2019 that the South China Sea is covered by the defense treaty.

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Former US president Donald Trump and current President Biden also called on China to abide by the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, Biden's officials welcomed the recent decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to recall the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The VFA provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises. 

MODERNIZATION PROGRAM

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have agreed to develop a joint vision statement that will contain the two countries’ “shared priorities” for the next phase of cooperation.

Lorenzana, in a recorded keynote address, added that the Philippines and the US would convene the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue “to further discuss the alliance’s shared priorities and encourage our respective armed forces to sustain cooperation” under the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB).

They also plan to conclude a bilateral maritime framework “that advances cooperation in the maritime domain and to resume Enchanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) projects in approved locations in the Philippines.” 

Lorenzana said the AFP has “revitalized” its modernization program and formulated its national security strategy aimed at implementing policy to upgrade military capabilities to protect Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights as well as “deter conflict in the South China Sea.”

“Our security cooperation with the US is vital in securing advanced weapons systems towards having a minimum deterrence capability against external threats,” Lorenzana said.

“Keeping our alliance robust is well within the interest not only of the Philippines and the United States, but also of the whole Indo-Pacific region,” he added.

Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez, on the other hand, said the Philippines needs US support to address economic and security challenges amid the pandemic. 

Romualdez noted that there is a need to make the two countries’ alliance and relationship “effective and functional” for the mutual security of both sides.

He also added that the alliance needs a “refresh” to “keep up with the times.”

“The Philippines has proposed a multi-year plan that will ensure continuity and predictability in our efforts to modernize our military and defense capabilities. We do hope to sit down with our US counterparts to thresh out the details of this proposed program,” Romualdez said.

“[A] stronger Philippines, both economically and militarily, can do a lot more for the United States than one that continues to be weak and unable to support itself," he added. 

"There is the word ‘mutual’ in the MDT and it is high time that the treaty lives up to its name, mutually capable of covering each other’s back when and if the need arises.”