MDT 70 years after: What does it mean today?

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

On Aug. 30, 1951, the United States and the Philippines signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, the one and only – as well as the longest running – defense treaty that the Philippines has ever made with any nation. The MDT came about five years after the Philippines gained its independence in 1946 – the same year that also saw the US and the Philippines establishing formal diplomatic relations.

Under the Mutual Defense Treaty, both countries would come to the aid of each other if either nation should ever come under attack by a foreign aggressor – in essence underscoring the close relations between the two allies whose soldiers fought alongside each other against the Japanese during World War II, resulting in either death or capture of 23,000 American troops and 100,000 Filipino soldiers.

A shared experience that has also been deeply etched into the consciousness of Filipinos is the Bataan Death March where an estimated 80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war walked about 100 kilometers from Mariveles in Bataan to Capas in Tarlac, with thousands dying during the grueling march. My father, a young doctor then, told us how he sewed back a portion of the neck of a Filipino guerrilla survivor of the march half-cut by a Japanese samurai sword. Let’s also not forget we fought “shoulder to shoulder” during the 1950 Korean War.

But like any relationship, there have been numerous bumps along the way, one of them the closure of the US bases in 1992. Despite that, the US-Philippines alliance remained, with the Visiting Forces Agreement ratified in 1999 by the Philippine Senate, followed by the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

During the virtual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue the other day with officials of the Pentagon and the US Department of State where Foreign Secretary Locsin joined us, we had a frank discussion regarding our bilateral relations and the issues surrounding the Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA.

President Duterte’s speech the other day in Clark, Pampanga during his inspection of newly-delivered air assets simply underscores the complex geopolitical world that we live in today, especially in the South China Sea and with China emerging as a military and economic power in the Asian region.

With the Philippines in the center of the arena, so to speak, the President is virtually walking on a tightrope because he clearly stated he does not want to quarrel with China. “We are avoiding any confrontation – a confrontation that would lead to something which we can hardly afford, at least not at this time,” the President said.

While we know that we have an ally in the US – “I am a friend of the United States,” the President affirmed – there are issues in the past that have generated disappointment as well as resentment. A case in point is the guided missiles and other weapons that have long been promised because the Philippines needs them to enhance our capability in fighting extremists. These missiles were, however, only provided last November after a conversation between President Duterte and then-US president Donald Trump.

The symbolic importance of this gesture was very apparent when the guided missiles and other weapons were personally delivered by former US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. President Duterte said, “It’s not as if we are asking for them for free – we are willing to buy equipment and other assets under terms that are befitting close allies.”

Many Filipinos certainly understand where the President is coming from when he said that the Philippines is being treated like a child who is promised something only to be left hanging later. “Their top brass will come; this group will promise you… Once they take off, they forget about it and nobody’s following [up] until you keep on reminding them,” the president said.

Many Filipinos, particularly the veterans, couldn’t help but feel disappointed at what they see as unfavorable – if not unequal treatment – between our nation and that of America’s erstwhile enemies like Vietnam and Japan, which is now one of the strongest allies of the US along with South Korea.

For the Philippines to become a reliable ally, its Armed Forces must be equipped with new aircraft and other hard assets that would enhance its defense capabilities and enable it to contribute to the partnership. Unfortunately, the materiel support our country has been getting were cast-offs and hand-me-downs under the negative sounding “Excess Defense Articles” (EDA) program of the US Department of Defense where “defense articles and military equipment that are no longer needed by the US Armed Forces” are transferred to other countries under the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act of the US. Aside from these transferred assets being old, they also do not come with weapons, technically rendering them unserviceable.

Even the joint training exercises known as the “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder) have also become a source of frustration – if not disappointment – for many young officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. During joint drills that are also aimed at enhancing interoperability, American soldiers would be bringing in their modern weaponry and military equipment that would be “borrowed” by our Filipino troops who would be impressed, occasionally salivating with envy. But once the Balikatan is over, the Americans would leave, taking all their equipment with them – leaving our boys hanging and wondering what the whole training was for.

Without being presumptuous, this is our interpretation of what the President meant when he said the US has to “pay for the VFA” in consonance with our shared responsibility and the true meaning of Mutual Defense Treaty.

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