A storm is brewing in America’s oldest security alliance in the Indo-Pacific and the administration needs to act quickly to head it off. On December 20, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana called for a review of the provisions of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Washington and Manila. A week later, he confirmed that Philippine government lawyers had been tasked to study ways to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it.” The primary reason for this review is what Lorenzana called America’s “ambivalence” about whether the treaty applies in the South China Sea, where Philippine troops and facilities are under threat from an increasingly assertive China. In a Jan. 8 interview, Lorenzana reiterated that if America won’t clarify the treaty’s scope, then scrapping it altogether is “an option.” That would be a severe blow to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific and a largely self-inflicted wound by Washington.
Lorenzana and the defense establishment in Manila are unlikely to demand actual amendments to the MDT. Doing so, even if the negotiations were successful, would require ratification by the U.S. and Philippine senates, which seems unlikely in the current political climates in both capitals. What they seem to want is a public clarification of U.S. policy regarding the application of the treaty to the South China Sea, hopefully accompanied by new guidelines to modernize and operationalize the treaty for the current threat environment. Given Washington’s interests in countering Beijing’s illegal claims and militarization of the South China Sea and the continued utility of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, Manila’s concerns should be seen as entirely reasonable and Washington should move quickly to resolve them.
Read the full article and more in War on the Rocks.