POSTSCRIPT / June 23, 2016 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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No instant reprisal under Phl-US pact

THE AMERICAN ambassador himself has dashed the illusion of many Filipinos that the United States would instantly hit back at China if hostilities erupted between Manila and Beijing over territorial disputes in surrounding waters.

“Only if you are attacked” was reportedly the reply of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg when President-elect Rodrigo Duterte asked him “Are you with us or are you not with us?” during the envoy’s recent call on him in his Davao City office.

Duterte mentioned the ambassador’s reply in his speech before businessmen who gathered in Davao last Tuesday to be apprised of the economic agenda of the incoming administration and to give their own proposals.

Goldberg’s reply was no surprise. It was a mere reiteration of the standard US answer to the recurring question about instant retaliation under the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

To understand why US reaction to any “attack” on its treaty partner will not be instant, we should examine the modifiers and qualifications of the term “attack.”

Here are pertinent excerpts from the Mutual Defense Treaty signed Aug. 30, 1951, in Washington, DC, and ratified by the Senates of both countries the following year (bold text supplied for emphasis):

“Article IV: Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.

“Article V: For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

• US action subject to constitutional processes

THE TEXT says it must be an “armed attack.” If Chinese coast guard vessels blast the smaller Philippine coast guard cutters with water cannons (as they have done on Filipino fishermen), will that qualify as an “armed attack” to justify the US coming to the rescue?

Any warlike reaction of the US to an attack on a part of the Philippines will have to go through the usual “constitutional processes.” That could be a tedious process considering war’s political implications.

The US President as Commander-in-Chief generally may wagewar, but only the Congress can declare war — and fund it. Then comes the debate over what “war” is, and what is merely warlike. Is firing warning shots at a Chinese vessel, deliberately missing it, a prelude to war?

Although Chinese provocative action within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines may not draw instant US military reaction, its obstructing innocent passage can ignite instant debate on Capitol Hill.

This is where the Senate’s ratification of the MDT may prove valuable. The treaty’s ratification improves the probability of getting favorable congressional action if funding or collateral legislation is needed to implement it.

No debate, however, will ensue and instant retaliation is guaranteed if the targets of the attack are American armed forces, public vessels or aircraft.

• Duterte could refocus US-China relations

WE ASSUME that neither the United States nor China wants war. Much less the Philippines.

“Why would I go to war?” Duterte has asked. “I will not waste the lives of people there.”

The Davao mayor’s rise as a new player in the region without prior commitments makes for a more flexible and pragmatic approach to foreign relations. For instance, he is able to say without jarring sensibilities that he wants to see how China can help develop his country.

Duterte could temper his tongue, wait quietly and not harp on the arbitration case that the Aquino administration has filed with the United Nations arbitration tribunal at The Hague questioning China’s encompassing claim over most of the South China Sea.

As we said in Postscript last May 19, the entry of Duterte may just provide the superpowers United States and China an opportunity — or an excuse – for easing their stiffening stance on territorial and security issues in the South China Sea.<>

We said: “(Duterte) could soon find himself in the unlikely role of a moderating influence in the high-stakes power poker where Washington and Beijing play with the fate of Asia, home of some 60 percent (4.4 billion) of the world’s population.

“He should strive to shift the emphasis in dialogue with Washington and Beijing from security issues to upgraded trade and investments. He can also follow up with China his ideas about railroad lines in Luzon and Mindanao as well as joint mineral exploration.

“Instead of a resort to, or a threat of, gunboat diplomacy, the two powers should welcome a change of focus, occasioned by a Duterte. There is need to cool down the tenor of the backyard quarrel of neighbors.

“Talking of neighbors, it is noteworthy that China and the Philippines have been neighbors since the earth came to be, with the US entering the Pacific neighborhood only much later. That says a lot about Philippine-Chinese relations.

“In 2015, while China-Asia trade fell 7.8 percent and China-ASEAN trade by 1.7 percent, the Philippines was one of only four ASEAN members that retained a positive trade growth with the neighbor. China was the Philippines’ No. 2 trading partner, No.1 import source, and No.3 export market in 2015.

“Stimulating trade and investment – also encouraging enhanced people-to-people contact – may help create a climate favorable to finding a resolution of the conflict over Panatag (Scarborough) shoal which the Aquino administration ‘lost’ to China by default in 2012.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 23, 2016)

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