Updating the MDT
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - February 17, 2019 - 12:00am

Last year, Defense Secretary Del Lorenzana proposed the idea of reviewing the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States in light of the growing tension between the US and China, as seen when a Chinese Luyang-class destroyer came within 45 yards of colliding with USS Decatur that sailed close to 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratlys while conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) last October. Several days ago, guided missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef while conducting routine FONOPs, drawing the ire of Beijing in the process.

Describing the near-encounters between the US and China as “very concerning,” Secretary Lorenzana said that “maybe the time has come for the MDT to be revisited, given that the provisions were made in 1951” and see if these provisions are still relevant to the current security situation in the region, and if the defense pact still serves our interest as a nation.

Signed on August 30, 1951, the MDT is the sole and longest running defense pact the Philippines has ever had with any country. It contains eight Articles, the most significant provision of which is that both nations would come to the aid of each other if either one of them were to be attacked by a foreign or external party. 

There are a few alarmists over Secretary Lorenzana’s statement that the aim of the review would be to decide whether to “maintain, strengthen or scrap” the MDT. In fact, we should see the review as an opportunity to update the 67-year-old treaty and clarify “unclear provisions,” and make the terms more responsive to the prevailing security need of the times. We need to address some of the “vague” provisions to make it clear and unequivocal.

One of the problematic issues is contained in Article IV that states, “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.” 

In this day and age when everything can happen so quickly, where attacks can be launched in the blink of an eye (or the push of a button) and where quick response is critical, MDT critics point to the lack of a provision for an automatic US response (or an instant retaliatory clause) in case of an armed attack, as approval from the US Congress will have to be obtained first. This is in contrast with other instances where a “simple” executive decision would be enough for US troops to be deployed in certain conflict situations. 

Article V states that “…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 Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” 

There have been a lot of questions on the scope or geographical area covered by the word “Pacific,” on whether it encompasses the whole Pacific Ocean and includes disputed territorial areas in the Spratlys, since the US has always said it does not take sides when it comes to territorial disputes. Critics point out that this is unlike the situation with Japan where the US – during the presidency of Barack Obama – stated that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands both claimed by Japan and China are covered by the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty. 

Both US and Philippine military officials agree that there is a need to update so many provisions in the MDT given the evolving security environment and the recent advancements in military technology. 

We are hopeful that talks will begin soon – in fact, exploratory discussions are already being conducted like the recent two-day conference organized by the US Embassy with Ambassador Sung Kim and officials from the Departments of Defense and Foreign Affairs such as Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna and Foreign Undersecretary Enrique Manalo.

Ambassador Kim acknowledged the need to go over an agreement as important and complicated as the 1951 MDT, saying the US welcomes taking a closer look at the treaty to see whether adjustments can be made to make the pact even better than the current one. He pointed out however, that various cooperation mechanisms and frameworks are already in place such as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Reaffirming the commitment of the US to fulfill its obligations under the MDT, Ambassador Kim says both nations should look at ways to “increase our combined readiness in the South China Sea. To more effectively fulfill the objective of our MDT, in the near term we hope to explore opportunities to improve US military access, joint training, and utilization agreements at strategic locations to increase our combined strength and deterrent posture,” the US Ambassador said during the conference.

“The Philippines is an important ally and we take our treaty obligations seriously. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty has been a bulwark of regional stability for almost 70 years. With the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, our relationship with the Philippines is as important as ever,” Ambassador Kim assured. 

This was the same reassurance given by US State Secretary Mike Pompeo when Secretary Teddy Locsin and I met with him at the State Department in December, where he “reaffirmed the enduring US-Philippines alliance, including commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951.”

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com.

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