News / Asia

Philippines Looks to US Treaty in China Dispute

American crew members stand on the deck of the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas in North Charleston S.C., on May 22, 2012, during a ceremony in which it was transferred to the Philippine Navy.
American crew members stand on the deck of the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas in North Charleston S.C., on May 22, 2012, during a ceremony in which it was transferred to the Philippine Navy.
SEOUL - A tense naval standoff stemming from competing territorial claims between China and the Philippines is throwing a spotlight on an obscure treaty between Manila and Washington. But contemporary political considerations may trump the decades-old agreement.

The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines is being dusted off in both Washington and Manila by diplomats and politicians, many of whom were not even born when it was written in 1951.

Officials are trying to determine whether the United States is compelled to come to the aid of Manila should there be a military clash between the Philippines and China in an isolated lagoon some 200 kilometers west of Subic Bay.

For more than a month both the Philippines and China have had ships posted around Scarborough Shoal after Chinese vessels prevented a Philippines naval vessel from arresting Chinese fishermen.

Both the Philippines and China claim the waters.

Unclear US response

The treaty between Manila and Washington makes no explicit mention of the South China Sea. But the Philippines' Foreign Ministry is circulating letters it received from U.S. officials in 1979 and 1999 as evidence the treaty extends to its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Those include the shoal as well as some of the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by several countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year said the United States "will honor its treaty obligations to the Philippines" but would not speak about how America would respond to - as she put it - “hypothetical events” such as a Chinese attack on Filipino forces in the uninhabited Spratlys.

Senior fellow Denny Roy at the East West Center in Hawaii contends too much attention is being paid to the treaty's language and subsequent related statements of years past.

"Rather I would look at it from a more of a bird's eye perspective of what is in the United States' best interest to do in possible scenarios that we can foresee here. And certainly the United States and China getting into a shooting war with each other over any of the Spratly so-called islands would be insane," he said. "Neither the United States nor China is going to knowingly enter into an insane situation based on pieces of paper."

Manila's view

The Philippines by itself, with an aging naval fleet or about a dozen light warships and not a single fighter jet, would find itself outgunned by a formidable Chinese force.

Thus, Roy explains, it is no surprise Manila is asserting the United States is obligated to come to its aid in the event of such a conflict.

"Of course," says Roy, "the Philippines has an interest in taking the strongest possible interpretation of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States - that is roping in the United States as strongly as possible. But we should understand here that all the players have their own specific agenda and that of the Philippines is to advance their claims now while they have their opportunity. It'll be more difficult in the future when forces that China is able to project in the area will be stronger."

Complicated emotions

For Filipinos, asking the United States for military support is fraught with complicated emotions.

The country is a former U.S. colony and American forces liberated the Philippines from  Japanese occupation during World War II. But rising anti-American sentiment in the post-war era led to the Philippines Senate, in 1991, voting to close U.S. military bases in the country. The 1951 defense treaty of the Cold War era, however, was not scrapped.

As Philippines University professor emeritus Carolina Hernandez notes, some of those who decades ago campaigned to get the U.S. military out of the country have lately had a change of heart.

"Even within the segments of the left-wing groups there is this recognition that the Philippines cannot hold its own against the Chinese. And therefore because the strategic interests of the United States in the South China Sea - the West Philippines Sea - and the Philippines at this particular point in time are compatible there is the expectation that the United States will come to defend the mutual interests of both countries," she  said.

Hernandez, the founding president of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies in Manila, explains many Filipinos fret about trade ties between Washington and Beijing trumping America's strategic interest in the Philippines, which stretches back to 1898.

Chinese dilemma

"There are those that still think that the U.S. is unreliable," said Hernandez. "These people do not think that the United States will risk its fragile relationship with China to defend maritime interests in the Philippines, will not come to the aid of the Philippines because the bilateral U.S.-China relations is hugely important in the new configuration of power, not just in the region but in the world."

Former U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton says that would be a mistake.

"The Philippines are entitled to assert their legitimate claims to what they think their territory is, based on the geology and the history and treaties and so on. And, I think the consensus is that it is really China whose territorial claims are way out of line," he said.

Bolton says Washington should encourage the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to work out their own maritime territorial disputes so they can create a united stance to demonstrate, along with the United States, that Chinese attempts to take control of international waters will not be tolerated.

Bolton, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, predicts China will "probe and push" its maritime claims as far as it can until it meets serious resistance.

"And I'm afraid they're going to try and take advantage of U.S. attention on the upcoming election," he said. "They see the risk that Obama could be defeated so they're going to push as hard as they can with a weak president in the White House. That's why I think there's a real incentive for the ASEAN countries to try to pull together here in the short term."

Some analysts contend it would be wrong for Beijing to perceive the current U.S. administration as a potential appeaser. They say Washington would certainly consider dispatching a 7th Fleet carrier battle group to reclaim the contested shoal should China's superior forces overwhelm the Philippines navy. There are those who predict, in the short term, all sides will find a face-saving way to lessen the tension.

But that will still leave unresolved broader territorial disputes in the region at a time when China is asserting claims in the resource-rich and strategic South China Sea and the United States is demonstrating it intentions to remain a Pacific power.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs