Are we that naïve as a nation and as a people to even consider or think of “calling for a war” with China and label the water cannon recent incident in the Ayungin Shoal as a “declaration of war” deceptively banking on the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Uncle Sam’s rhetoric saying that it has ironclad relations with Mang Juan. The US Department of State and Department of Defense kept saying, “China’s armed attack on Philippine vessels will trigger the MDT between the US and PH.
In terms of its strategy and policy, if one will just think through carefully, the US is extremely cautious in its declaration/statements and extremely cautious about standing up for its allies through military action unless its perceived interests are seriously challenged. The US, in fact, is extremely reluctant to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for PH. Are we that naïve for not seeing this?
The critical question is whether the US wants to trigger the MDT. Take note, the US is fond of using the phrase “an ‘armed attack” on a Philippine ship or crew in the Pacific can trigger the MDT. But there is ambiguity about whether it can be triggered when water cannons or laser beam equipment are used. One must note that, regardless of geography, the definition of “armed attack” varies and is technically hard to define.
In accordance with the case law of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), an armed attack is the gravest form of the use of force. Hence, an armed attack involves the use of armed force. Substantially and technically speaking, can water cannons be considered “the gravest form of the use of force or armed force, or can it be considered really an “armed attack”? I leave it up to you to wonder, folks.
On the other hand, before we get too excited with the bravado of war banking on the assumption that Uncle Sam will back us up as a country militarily speaking by triggering the MDT, it is probably high time to think through and ask ourselves as to the value really of the MDT in relations to the Ayungin Shoal issue vis-à-vis the US.
What is the Mutual Defense Treaty? The United States has bilateral defense treaties with its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. The US-PH MDT focuses on Articles 4 and 5, with the core content of mutual military assistance and joint operations. Article 4 of the Treaty states that “an armed attack in the Pacific area by either party may endanger the peace and security of that party and may declare to act in response to a common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” Article 5 provides that “an armed attack against either Party shall be deemed to be an attack against the suzerainty or territory of either Party, the territory or territory of islands under its jurisdiction, and against armed forces, ships or aircraft of a public character in the Pacific Ocean.”
Concerning such a provision of the MDT, one has to note that the US has the final say in implementing the treaty. In actual life situations, what this means? This means that when something happens to PH, if the US wants to help, there is no condition to create conditions, but if it does not want to intervene, it can also find all possible reasons and conditions to refuse. Let us not forget what happened in the Scarborough Shoal standoff. What was the statement of Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State at that time, concerning the “Scarborough Shoal Stand-Off” between the Philippines and China? She said, and I quote, “The US does not take a position on any territorial claim because any nation with a claim has a right to assert it.”
To note, the MDT is NOT “by its terms” self-executory. It has no “instant retaliatory clause.” The US Congress has to be consulted first and seek its approval before any retaliatory action can be taken to aid US allies PH in case of an armed attack.
Furthermore, regarding the 1951 MDT between the US and PH, the scope of defense agreed by the two sides is blurred and fuzzy. The US limits the scope of mutual defense to the 1898 Treaty of Paris, signed when the Philippines had not yet begun to claim the islands and reefs of the SCS, which naturally fell outside the scope of the MDT. Although the Philippines has repeatedly requested that the so-called “Kalayaan Islands” and the “West Philippine Sea” be included in the defense scope of the treaty, the US did not give a definite answer until just recently
In recent years, the US has calibrated its position. Although the islands and reefs of the SCS are of little value to the US, to tie the Philippines to the chariot of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy or the US Pivot to Asia to contain, intimidate, and counter China’s peaceful rise, coupled with the hangover of the US afraid that it will lose its hegemony in the Asia Pacific region, the Americans are espousing rhetoric that the MDT will protect the disputed SCS, and PH has an “ironclad” relations to shout two voices for show.
In this regard, it is apparent that the US is using the SCS issue to restrain China and raise regional tensions to gain more strategic space in planning its maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific region, laying out the ongoing execution of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. On another note, as far as the islands and reefs in the SCS being claimed by the Philippines are concerned, these are of little value to the US.
The US hopes “something happens every day” in the SCS. But it does not want a major and direct confrontation with China in the SCS at this stage. The reason is simple: a US direct armed conflict with China over Ayungin Shoal is not in America’s interest. But the US plans and hopes to “defeat its perceived enemy (China) without fighting China directly” in the context of Sino-US major geopolitical competition and rivalry through a proxy (Philippines), in the same manner, that Ukraine is a proxy in an attempt to weaken Russia in the Ukraine-Russia Crisis, which the US and the alliance are failing miserably. Hence, the US at this time doesn’t want a direct showdown with China, but it can use a proxy to do its bidding. Who’s the proxy? Your guess is as good as mine.
In more than a decade, although the US has actively supported the Philippines’ activities in the SCS in relation to PH claims in terms of diplomacy, media hype, and public opinion, however, there has been little direct military intervention, such as the Scarborough Standoff and the repeated friction between China and the Philippines in the Ayungin Shoal. Although the US military actively provided intelligence support but did not directly provide on-site support as the Philippines wanted.
The crux of the problem with our country is that we have unrealistic expectations from the US and a colonial mind. Likewise, this current administration is trying to take advantage of the rivalry between China and the US to assert its maritime claims in the SCS, unrealistically and unpragmatically speaking. This strategy is bound and doomed to fail, misjudging the likely all-out military support of the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese people’s strong and firm resolve to safeguard its territorial and sovereign interests in the areas of the SCS where it has claims. This is, I guess, something that our officials in government and President Marcos need to think through and probably ponder on before it’s too late.
But one thing is certain: all regional countries, including the Philippines, must safeguard peace and stability in the SCS. The world cannot afford another military crisis tantamount to a war on our side of the world. If peace, stability, and security are to be sustained in the ASEAN and the wider Asia Pacific region, Filipinos and Asians must take center stage in resisting the costly consequences of geopolitics (wars & conflicts). In war, there are no winners, only losers.
In retrospect, the complications of geopolitics are indeed costly. The Philippines can’t afford it. But the path toward economic development will benefit the Philippines and Filipinos. The path to peace creates security and stability, and we achieve economic prosperity through peace and stability.
Hence, a peaceful, pragmatic, and diplomatic resolution of the SCS dispute through open-minded, respectful, and sincere dialogue and negotiations between the Philippines and China, no matter how difficult, is a must and the optimal solution to the SCS dispute.
Trying to “rely on the unreliable US promises to resist or fight China over the disputed waters of the SCS will only backfire, is counterproductive, dangerous for PH, and will aggravate the complexity and tension of the contested waters of the SCS.
Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy
is a PhD economics candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development in China’s Peking University. She is analyst, director and vice president for external affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a Manila-based think tank.