Column: Will the US defend ‘a few rocks’ in our sea?

Published on May 6, 2014.

Diplomacy is the art of calibrated ambiguity, and during his first visit to the Philippines last week (he will return next year, barring another American federal government shutdown), US President Barack Obama was nothing if not diplomatic.

On the question of the day, whether the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States would apply in case of an armed confrontation in the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China, he was both forceful and ambiguous. Before reporters (and a television audience), he said: “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China.” At the state dinner, and again before US and Filipino troops the following day, he described the United States’ “commitment to defend the Philippines” as “ironclad.”

Much of the Philippine commentary I’ve read since then viewed Obama’s message as either

(a) contradictory, a kind of forked-tongue pledge, or (b) less than satisfactory, especially when contrasted with his categorical language defending Japan’s position on the disputed Senkaku islands.

I subscribe to the Inquirer’s editorial position that the United States stands to gain much more from the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed before the start of Obama’s visit, than the Philippines does, and that any upgrade in the Philippine military’s capability can only be at best a secondary objective, a mere byproduct of the new agreement. (See, for instance, “US Bases Lite.”)

But if we follow the logic behind US decision-making, we will see that Obama’s message could not have been a surprise and that his administration’s policy regarding the disputes in the South China Sea, like that of other US administrations, remains one of strategic ambiguity.

It is necessary to point to a clear distinction between the MDT (signed in 1951) and the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States (signed in 1960). Both use the same language, more or less; the Japanese treaty, however, includes an article allowing the United States its military bases in the country. It also specifies, in Article V, the circumstance which would trigger American defensive action: “an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan.”

That last phrase is key; while the United States does not officially take sides in the dispute over the Senkakus (which China calls the Diaoyu), it has always recognized Japanese administration of the islands. Obama spelled it out in his joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “Article Five covers all territories under Japan’s administration including [the] Senkaku islands.” He was the first US president to say the treaty covered the Senkakus, which is what grabbed headlines, but hardly the first US government official to make the declaration. It is longstanding US policy.

Article V of the MDT also specifies the circumstances which will trigger defensive actions by either the United States or the Philippines: “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.”

The Philippine claim to what is now the Kalayaan Island Group (in the Spratlys) and to Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, off Zambales, has historical roots and political sanction to back it—but, even when the Philippines was still under US colonial administration, the United States had never officially taken sides in territorial or maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Do the Kalayaan islands, or does Scarborough (also called Panatag), fall under the MDT? Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario thinks so, citing a 1999 “diplomatic letter” from the United States which classifies the South China Sea as part of the Pacific region. The scholar Francois-Xavier

Bonnet, in his 2012 discussion paper on Scarborough, suggests the disputed areas could be covered by the MDT. And the language of the introductory clauses of the MDT itself employs “Pacific Area” thrice, including a reference to the “development of a more comprehensive system of regional security in the Pacific Area”—a usage which does not make sense if taken to refer only to countries on the so-called Pacific Rim.

But no American official has gone on public record to clarify the matter, because strategic ambiguity is in the United States’ best interests. As the International Crisis Group noted in its excellent two-part report of 2012, “Stirring up the South China Sea,” the MDT “predates the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea so it is uncertain how the US will interpret its application to disputed territories in the event of a conflict”—and as long as it continues to redirect more military resources to the region, this uncertainty is good for the United States.

Obama can offer an ironclad promise of defense because the limitations of the MDT (e.g., “metropolitan territory”) are clear; he can also promote noncontainment because certain conditions in the MDT (e.g., “in the Pacific”) are subject to interpretation. As a surly China proved with its initial response to Obama’s message in Manila, we hear what we want to hear.

* * *

Some Filipinos criticized President Aquino for referring to the areas the Philippines disputes as “a few rocks that are not possible to be inhabited.” But in fact this is a legal position. In 2012, Bonnet summed up what is at stake: “By showing… that Scarborough Shoal is a low tide elevation with few rocks above sea level, the Philippines could neutralize the [200-mile zone] around the shoal that the Chinese are eyeing.”

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