"Timing is of the utmost importance."
During his two-day visit to the country, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued what could be interpreted as the strongest word of support from the United States regarding our current problems in the South China Sea.
He said that any attack on a Philippine government vessel or aircraft in the South China Sea will trigger Article 4 of the Mutual Defense Treaty signed by both countries in 1951. Article 4 in the treaty mandates both countries to come to the defense of each other if attacked.
Although the statement was welcomed by almost all our senior leaders, some lawmakers reacted differently and issued their own statements. Almost all welcomed it, but others wanted a more precise and clearer statement that should be put in writing. The visit also brought to the fore the issue on whether to review the treaty or leave it as it is. Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin believes that it should not be touched at all. He would rather leave it as it is.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, on the other hand, who first brought up the idea several months ago, still wants a review of the treaty to clarify some issues like the inerpretation of terms. To him it is important that both countries have the same understanding of all words used in the treaty. He gave what happened to Scarborough Shoal as an example. We were not technically attacked but we lost an island which we consider as part of our territory. His question is how we should categorize that situation.
Of all our senior officials, it is Secretary Lorenzana who has been the most vocal in wanting to review the MDT. For one, the treaty was signed in 1951—68 years ago. In the intervening years, a lot has changed when it comes to warfare. Today, countries go to war without the need to declare war against each other like the way it was done in the Second World War. The US has not stopped fighting ever since the end of World War 2. The US fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Grenada, and went into Panama to take out President Manuel Noriega and is still currently fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan which is now the country’s longest war. In all these conflicts, war was never declared.
There were, however, resolutions from the United Nations authorizing the conflict in both Korean and Iraqi wars. Secretary Locsin who is for not touching the treaty cautions everyone to be careful of what one wishes because those wanting a review might end up getting the worse end of the deal. Although I agree with Secretary Lorenzana that it is about time to revisit the treaty, timing is of the utmost importance and now is not the best time to do it.
The opinion of the most important official of the land, the President,is not really known. He has not expressed any opinion as to whether he is in favor of a review or not. Yes, the Palace spokesman did issue a statement that the treaty should be left as it is, but that did not come from the President himself.
Still, even if Mr. Duterte has remained quiet about the subject, we can somehow deduce how he views our national security interests. When he took office in 2016, one of the first things that he did was to abolish the yearly joint Balikatan military exercises. Although it was brought back, it is on a much smaller scale and he never attended it unlike previous presidents. Early in his administration, he also went into some kind of a verbal war with Europe and the US and singlehandedly took over the foreign policy of the country and moved the Philippines closer to China. He even said in his public utterances —which the Palace said was all a joke—that China was trying to make the country one of its provinces. Most important of all, he stopped what he considers as confrontational responses to what China is doing in the South China Sea because we cannot win a war against China.
The country has since stopped protesting openly, preferring quiet diplomacy instead. Today, for all intents and purposes, China has built numerous islands and stationed military units in these islands. If there is a review, our team led by the President must first come out with one agreed position. One way to achieve this is to convene the National Security Council so that all the senior leaders of the country can contribute their ideas in the formulation of a single position.
Under the current atmosphere, the US has probably no incentive to want to revisit the MDT because if we ourselves do not seem to want to defend our interests hard enough, why do we need to review the treaty at all? Secretary Lorenzana should in the meantime focus on building a single Philippine position and try to demonstrate this to establish credibility. Most importantly, he should work hard on bringing the President around his position and convince him that it is the better way to protect our national security interests. As it is, we do not have a very strong hand. We have to make it stronger.
Of the four living former Presidents, two will probably follow whatever stand President Duterte makes. They are former Presidents Gloria Arroyo and Joseph Estrada. The positions former Presidents Aquino and Ramos are generally known. We do not know the position of the Senate President. But hopefully, our leaders will have the wisdom to come out with a strong united stand for the sake of our country.