POSTSCRIPT / March 3, 2019 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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MDT’s usefulness is in its vagueness?

CONFUSE the enemy. Keep the neighborhood bully guessing how the Yankee big brother would react to assaults on Philippine security and territorial integrity.

That interim formula for addressing, or evading, mutual defense issues appears to have emerged during the brief meetings Friday of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with President Duterte and Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr.

The formula is a fallback to the status quo ante-Pompeo. Nothing on the surface has changed as to Manila’s option to invoke the 1951 Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty to respond to the conflicts roiling the South China Sea.

Both sides bought time by agreeing that there was no urgent need to review and revise the 67-year-old MDT as suggested by sectors anxious over Chinese buildup and militarization of strategic maritime features in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

Apparently satisfied with Pompeo’s reaffirmation of American commitment under the MDT to defend the Philippines if it were attacked, Locsin said there was no need to review the agreement.

Locsin said in a joint press conference with his US counterpart: “In vagueness lies uncertainty — a deterrent. Specificity invites evasion and actions outside the MDT framework.”

He said he did not think a review of the mutual defense pact was necessary as he believed in the “old theory of deterrence.”

“I don’t believe that going down into the details is the way the sincerity of the American commitment will be shown,” he said. “They will respond depending on the circumstances but we are very assured, we are confident that the United States has… in the words of Secretary Pompeo and the words of President Trump to our President, ‘We have your back.’”

Leaving the MDT text untouched is a way out for Manila and Washington. They may not be ready to say publicly how they intend to deal with an expansionist China, which diplomatic sources said is the unspecified potential aggressor hinted at in the treaty born out of the Cold War.

Having embraced China as friend and benefactor, Duterte is not ready to confront China President Xi Jinping about Chinese land-grabbing in the West Philippine Sea. He explained that war with China would be costly for Filipinos.

Duterte could have turned to the US for help, but in the early stages of his courtship of Beijing, he made a big show of publicly berating the US, among other allies of long-standing, thus leaving the Philippines virtually alone to deal with such intruders as China.

Duterte disregarded suggestions that he approached conflicting SCS claims through a multilateral front, possibly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of which the Philippines was chair in 2017. He chose to deal directly with Beijing, thinking he could do it solo.

The MDT text, as well as official pronouncements of both sides, talks of armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels as the trigger for mutual defensive reaction.

Does the term “attack” exclude Chinese vessels’ firing at Philippine seacraft with water cannons, of boarding and seizing of fishermen’s catch, and the building up, occupation and militarization of reefs and shoals in the Philippines EEZ, among other aggressive acts?

This is just one of several delicate questions that would require answers if the Philippines and the US sat down to clarify the MDT. Neither party may be comfortable discussing the issues with China within earshot.

 US says South China Sea part of Pacific

ALTHOUGH he did not announce any new US policy in Manila, Pompeo gained points among the natives when he said that Beijing’s military moves in the South China Sea threatened the country’s sovereignty, security and economic livelihood.

Pompeo also seemed to have quieted the question of whether US commitments, focused on the Pacific, also covered the South China Sea on the west side of the Philippines when he said:

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Pompeo did not really say anything new. On May 24, 1999, US Ambassador Thomas C. Hubbard wrote then Foreign Secretary Domingo L. Siazon reiterating among other things a statement of Defense Secretary William Cohen that “the US considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific area.”

For reference, Article IV says: “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.”

On the constitutional processes that the US has to undergo under Article IV, then Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario said in 2012:

“Under the US Constitution, the US President as Commander-in-Chief may commit US armed forces into action overseas although the US president is obliged to notify the US Congress within 48 hours of such action, as provided for under the US War Powers Resolution of 1973. The same Resolution requires that such commitment of US armed forces could not go beyond 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without US congressional authorization.

“This means that a US congressional authorization is needed only if the engagement of US armed forces abroad would go beyond 60 days.

“Even in the absence of an actual armed attack against either the Philippines or the US, Article III of the MDT provides that the Philippines and the US, through their Foreign Ministers or their deputies, will consult together from time to time regarding the implementation of this Treaty and whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 3, 2019)

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