Philippines, U.S.: Washington Clears Some Muddy Waters in the South China Sea

4 MINS READMar 1, 2019 | 22:48 GMT
The Big Picture

The growing strategic competition between China and the United States is creating risks and opportunities for smaller powers in Southeast Asia to carve out the middle ground between the two giants. The Philippines, a key security ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, has sought better ties with Beijing over the past three years in the hopes of reaping economic benefits. But China's continued territorial expansion in the South China Sea has compelled Manila to demand that Washington clarify its position on how far it will go to defend the island nation.

What Happened

Amid renewed questions over the United States' security obligations to the Philippines, Washington is hoping to bring Manila back into its orbit. During a March 1 visit to the Philippines, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to reassure Manila of Washington's commitment to their 68-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty. Specifically, Pompeo emphasized that the United States would uphold Article 4 of the treaty, verbally adding that "any armed attack on Philippines forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations." Pompeo underscored that Beijing's artificial islands and military activities in the South China Sea threaten both regional freedom of navigation, as well as the Philippines' security.

Many Philippine politicians have argued that the treaty's failure to clearly specify the geographical areas in which an attack would trigger a U.S. response (the treaty makes vague mention of "metropolitan territory" and "the Pacific," without delineating the extent of the ocean) have deprived the country of a sufficient deterrent against external threats, just as China is expanding its maritime reach right up to the island country's waters.

Pompeo also touched on the United States' global campaign to discourage its allies and partners from cooperating with Chinese tech firms on 5G technology, warning the Philippines that it would jeopardize U.S. cooperation "in certain environments" if it used Huawei gear on sensitive projects. The admonition came as the country's key wireless provider is preparing to launch a Huawei-backed 5G service in the next quarter.

Pompeo's specification of the "South China Sea" sends a clear signal that the United States would come to defend the Philippines if an armed conflict occurs in the body of water.

Why It Matters

Pompeo's specification of the "South China Sea" sends a clear signal that the United States would come to defend the Philippines if an armed conflict occurs in the body of water. Nevertheless, it falls short of addressing Manila's long-running desire for greater certainty about the precise conditions necessary to trigger a U.S. response to "armed attacks." What's more, the treaty lacks an "instant retaliatory clause," meaning both countries would have to first consult their parliaments before authorizing a military response to any attack, ruling out any rapid reaction.

In response to Pompeo's remark, however, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said there was no need for further review, arguing that "in vagueness lies the best deterrence" to an attack on the country. In contrast, the president's office said the Philippines still needed to review the pact, citing "the terms in the defense pact should be 'clear-cut.'"

Pompeo's remarks nevertheless offered the first clarification on the treaty's possible effect on disputes in the South China Sea in recent years. Indeed, Pompeo's clarification does not appear to be coincidental: The Philippines could be essential to U.S. efforts to roll back Chinese expansion in the region, although it has also been pursuing better relations with China in recent years. As a result, Beijing will be well-placed to capitalize on any strains in the relationship between Manila and Washington.


The Mutual Defense Treaty and military cooperation with the United States has allowed the Philippines to compensate for its weak national military, helping safeguard the island country's territorial integrity. But the question of Washington's commitment and its perceived unwillingness to respond to Beijing's territorial assertiveness have led some Philippine officials to doubt the current treaty's deterrence factor. And given the United States' distant attitude, some in Manila have pushed for closer relations with other powers — like President Rodrigo Duterte, who is cultivating better economic and, increasingly, security ties with Beijing.

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