"Why is Lorenzana even suggesting this?"
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana appears to be an implanted operator of US interest in the supposedly independent-minded President. Lorenzana is suggesting a review of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US which was signed on Aug. 30, 1951. Specifically, the defense chief is eyeing the inclusion of the nine islands in the Kalayaan group under our occupation to be covered by the MDT. This came at a time when the Philippines signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding with China for the exploration and extraction of oil and natural gas in the South China Sea,
As one might say, the ink used to sign the MOU has yet to dry, and we could already hear discordant voices explaining why the existing treaty only covers the so-called “metropolitan Philippines” referring to the three main islands of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao and the territories within the country’s exclusive economic zone, and therefore need to be expanded.
The suggestion would extend the coverage of the MDT to the disputed islands and shoals currently occupied by the Philippines, namely: Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay) Island, Kota (Loaita) Island, Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Patag (Flat) Island, Likas (West York) Island, Panata (Lankiam Cay) Island, Ayungin (Second Thomas ) Shoal, and Rizal (Commodore ) Reef. Panatag which is now occupied by China and Ayungin Shoal are both within the country’s EEZ.
Objectively, the suggestion to amend, upgrade or abrogate the treaty with the US comes as a surprise. Some view the suggestion as contumaciously inappropriate; it comes when the two countries have yet to come up with the mechanism to implement the MOU. Some could sense that the motive is to derail the multibillion oil and gas project that was once destroyed by Cory Aquino’s “economic hitman” Cesar Buenaventura.
For the Philippines to extend the MDT to the disputed territories where we can only exercise our sovereign right could instantly sour the relations tirelessly built by the President. It would certainly cause a sharp reaction from China which may see it as an attempt to include a third party over a territory to which it also claims as their own. More importantly, China is likely to oppose the proposal, for that would give the US access right in the middle of the busy waterway, and use those islands for anchorage and berthing of its naval ship regularly patrolling the area.
Admittedly, it would be difficult for us to extend the MDT to include territories outside the demarcated boundaries which the US accepted from Spain and handed to us which we incorporated in the 1935 Constitution and affirmed in the various international treaties such as the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco and 1952 Taipei Peace Treaty.
It seems that the move of Lorenzana is to set aside the warming of relations between the two countries that began with the visit of the President to Beijing and the signing of the various agreements. These range from economic assistance to the earmarking of several multibillion projects indicating our willingness to enter into a joint venture agreement to tap the vast oil and gas reserve in the South China Sea. All these amount to our acquiescence to set aside the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of concrete and productive relations with China.
Lorenzana’s suggestion implies that within the administration, there are people determined to renew our antagonism with China by vexing that country with our intention to revive the PCA decision. It is not only the Philippines that will be placed in an awkward position. The President will be embarrassed. The President had already crossed more than half of the bridge to restore the friendly relations with China by trying to tone down the impact of the ruling. He knows this cannot be enforced without plunging the country into war with China.
The posturing of Lorenzana and Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna is strange considering that our defense agreement with the US is viewed by many as dysfunctiona. It seems that only the US can invoke said treaty. Now here comes Lorenzana seeking to extend the MDT to include some of the islands in the SCS which is wholly pursuant to the US policy of containing China. In fact, the US has already manifested its intention not to assist us in the event of conflict in that disputed territory.
Realpolitik dictates that we have to make some realistic adjustment to our relations with China for the consideration that there is no way we can enforce the PCA ruling or rely on our much-ballyhooed alliance with the US. On the contrary, political realism tells us of the enormous economic benefits should we pursue the constructive approach considering that China has not even imposed a precondition to our normalization of relations by requesting us to shelve the decision of the PCA.
The MDT, like all the defense agreements we signed with the US, is an executive agreement. It means the US alone could decide when it would come to our defense. However, even that is highly improbable. Our dense agreement with the US is not even a treaty but an executive agreement wholly dependent on the judgment of the US President.
Upgrading the MDT would ipso facto give the US the right to demand access into those islands. That would heighten tension because that could bring closer to confrontation with China using the Philippines as springboard to wage another proxy war. Certainly, China would not sit idly seeing the US using our facilities in the Spratlys to position its naval presence and ruin altogether the constructive efforts of the administration to secure the trust and confidence of China to help the country advance economically through joint partnership agreement.
Without us saying it, extending the MDT coverage would revive that vexing decision initiated by Noynoy Aquino. That would amount to a virtual 180-degree turn in our policy towards China. There is no other way one could interpret our move, for it is clear we are back to the Cold War mentality of taunting our neighbor by expanding the horizon of the defense agreement when building up and securing our relations with China is our best guarantee to our defense for at stake is the shared interest in the future of the two countries. We can even look at the MOU beyond the economic benefits it could offer with China as our co-protector of our interest in the area which undoubtedly would be heightened once the parties to the agreement begin their drilling operations.
The country cannot afford to throw a monkey wrench to all our efforts to secure for us an assured supply of oil and natural gas. Maybe the opposition can accuse Duterte of selling out our interest. But the same question is asked whether it is possible for us to carry out such undertaking without the cooperation of our neighbor, or just allow foreign concessionaires to hand us the usual royalty crumbs for extending to them the right to negotiate for us in what should be our principal task of securing for our people their rightful share.