How often do you hear someone ask, “Will the U.S. defend the Philippines if China attacked her?” Very often. As a matter of fact, with China reclaiming several islands inside the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and building fortifications, runways, and harbors on them, many Filipinos have been wondering: “Why is it that Uncle Sam is not defending the Philippines as called for in the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)?” The most common answer to that question is: “These islands are disputed by several other countries and the U.S. doesn’t want to get involved in territorial disputes and therefore she stays neutral.” And besides, Uncle Sam says that these islands are outside the scope of the MDT.
As a student of geopolitics, I have reservations – and misgivings – about this line of reasoning. While it may be true that “Politics is addition,” as the late statesman Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez loved to say, it’s not quite true in geopolitics, which is defined as: “A study of the influence of such factors as geography, economics, and demography on the politics and especially the foreign policy of a state.” If that was the case, then I must then say that “geopolitics is multiplication” compounded by realpolitik calculations… or miscalculations. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone because geopolitics in today’s world is like a bowl of spaghetti (or pancit); that is: the more you try to straighten it out, the more it gets messed up.
Mutual Defense Treaty
At the end of World War II, the U.S. signed mutual defense treaties with several Asian allies to stop the spread of communism. The Philippines, which gained her independence from the U.S. on July 4, 1946, had an active and strong communist insurgency that was supported by Russia and China.
On August 30, 1951, the U.S. and the Philippines signed an MDT. The treaty consists of eight articles, of which Articles I through V dictate how the treaty works.
Article I says: “The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means (italics mine) in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purpose of the United Nations.”
Article II says: “In order more effectively to achieve the objective of this Treaty, the Parties separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
Article III says: “The Parties, 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.”
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. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
Article V says: “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.”
While Articles I, II and III are pretty much straightforward, Article IV requires that armed attacks shall be reported to the Security Council (SC) of the United Nations. The SC had five permanent members with veto powers; i.e., US, UK, USSR, France, and China. While communist USSR is no longer in existence and her seat was taken by the Russian Federation, China was represented by the Republic of China (ROC) government based in Taipei, Taiwan. Today, communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) government based in Beijing represents China on the SC. In the event that hostility – or war — broke out between China vs. US and the Philippines, China could use her veto power to block any attempt by the US to invoke the provision of Article IV.
Chinese reclamation projects
Recently, Philippine Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, Western Command Chief, reported that Chinese forces on Subi Reef (Zamora Reef) in the Spratly Islands had sent radio messages warning seven Filipino patrol planes — on separate flights between Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island) and Chinese-held Subi Reef — to stay away. The Filipino patrol planes were flying to and from the airfield in Pag-asa Island, which is a municipality of Palawan.
The Chinese addressed the seven Filipino planes as “foreign planes” that were entering a “Chinese military area.” They were told to leave to avoid a possible “misjudgment.”
Last month, satellite photos were taken showing a runway and a harbor taking shape in the Fiery Cross Reef. With the reclamation projects going at full speed in at least six islands, it is anticipated that the naval and air bases would be operational by 2016.
War with China
With all this construction going in the Spratly Islands, the U.S. continues to maintain her neutrality. The question is: Would the US come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of a war with China?
That’s a tough question but it has been proven time and time again that logistics plays a vital role in a war – any war… small or big, conventional or non-conventional. The U.S. should – nay, must – be able to move personnel, armaments, supplies, and support services to the war zone in a short time. But the problem is: the US doesn’t have the logistics she needs to fight a war in the Philippines pre-positioned nearby. She couldn’t use the battle-ready US forces pre-positioned in Japan and South Korea because they’re there specifically to defend them from North Korean or Chinese attack.
It would take months to assemble an expeditionary force to defend the Philippines. And since the Philippine Constitution doesn’t allow foreign troops and military bases on Philippine soil, there is simply no way for the U.S. to defend the Philippines from Chinese invasion.
And this brings to mind that ignominious day of September 16, 1991 when 12 senators voted not to retain the U.S. bases in the Philippines. The following year, the Subic Naval Base closed its doors for good. Two years later, China grabbed Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in the middle of the night. Today, the reef serves as an outpost for the Chinese Coast Guard. In 2012, China took possession of the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) and roped it off to prevent Filipino fishing boats from entering the lagoon. With the entire Chinese reclamation projects gong on, it won’t be long before China imposes an EEZ around the Spratlys and an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over it, which would prevent Filipino planes and ships from entering “Chinese” territory.
And while all these things are going on, the U.S. continues to maintain her neutrality, which begs the question: Is Uncle Sam punishing the Philippines for kicking the US bases out in 1992?