Increased competition between China and the United States is creating headaches for the countries caught in the middle. Still, some states are finding ways to advance their interests by playing the two great powers off one another. The Philippines is a key ally in the U.S. strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, but Manila has sought closer ties with Beijing over the last two years in the hopes of economic gain. However, as China continues its territorial expansion in the South China Sea, the Philippines is now looking for stronger security assurances from the United States.
The Philippines has demanded greater clarity from the United States on its commitment to their Mutual Defense Treaty. Signed nearly 70 years ago, the treaty is a cornerstone of the military alliance between Washington and Manila in the Asia-Pacific region. But on Dec. 20, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said his country needed better confirmation of whether Washington would ride to the rescue if the Philippines finds itself in a military confrontation over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. Lorenzana argued that Washington's ambivalence on territorial issues in the South China Sea has made clarification necessary, and he stressed that the islets and shoals in the region should be covered by his country's treaty with the United States. In addition, Lorenzana has said that the issue was raised with U.S. officials in November.
Why It Matters
If the United States chooses to clearly include disputed territories in the South China Sea in its treaty with the Philippines, then Washington could become obligated to militarily defend its ally in a maritime confrontation. China and the Philippines are at odds over their conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, but it's unclear whether Washington would be obligated to assist the Philippines in a confrontation over the disputed territories. Currently, the Mutual Defense Treaty requires mutual commitment to developing the capacity to resist attacks, as well as consultation should either country come under threat in the Pacific. However, the lack of a shared interpretation of the treaty has created long-standing differences, particularly over the treaty's scope and the geographic area it covers. The treaty specifically applies to "metropolitan territory" and "island territories," which Manila claims is too vague to address its growing sovereignty concerns in the South China Sea.
The Mutual Defense Treaty was ratified well before conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea became a serious issue. However, China has since ramped up its military presence and begun building islands there, pushing the Philippines to seek a stronger security commitment from the United States. Washington, for its part, has responded with a mixture of reluctance and relative inaction — even as it has deepened its security presence in the country.
The Philippines' security alliance and military cooperation with the United States are the cornerstone of Manila's strategy to defend its territory from terrorists, foreign claimants and domestic insurgencies. Despite a weak military and an underdeveloped economy, Manila's partnership with Washington has enabled the Philippines to resist China's territorial expansion and extract some economic concessions from Beijing. Nevertheless, doubts over Washington's commitment have led some to question the effectiveness of the alliance — particularly following Washington's inaction after China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Despite its benefits, the partnership comes at the cost of serious economic cooperation with China. In an effort to keep his country's economy afloat, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's administration has sought greater ties with Beijing, which presents a challenge to Washington's regional agenda.
The Philippines' plan to review the Mutual Defense Treaty comes at a time when the United States is ramping up its focus on the Asia-Pacific region to counter China, which Washington now views as its greatest security threat. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has sought to challenge Beijing in the South China sea through increased freedom of navigation operations and closer cooperation with its regional allies. Moreover, Washington worked in 2014 to bring the Senkaku Islands under the umbrella of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan. However, it remains to be seen whether the United States will work toward a similar change in its treaty with the Philippines despite the conflicting territorial claims from regional players and the high risk of disagreements in the region. The United States has shown a clear desire to counter China's rise, but Washington will have to weigh how much risk it is willing to take on to accomplish that.