China Eyes Palawan

China Eyes Palawan

Just as the year 2018 was coming to end, several events happened that put into question the future of Philippine-US relations, particularly defense relations that is the linchpin of the Philippines’ military strategy.

On December 21, 2018, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin met with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Washington DC.  In a statement release by a State Department spokesperson, “Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Locsin also explored opportunities to increase people-to-people ties between our two countries, our longstanding commitment to human rights, and our cooperation to strengthen the Philippines’ energy security.”  The two top diplomats discussed “ongoing efforts to address regional issues such as the South China Sea, North Korea, and counterterrorism,” he said.

On the same day, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in his year-end briefing “stressed the need to review the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) given the ambivalent stand of the US on the country’s maritime domain and territorial issue in the West Philippine Sea.”  He wanted the US to give a definitive stand on whether it would support the Philippines in the event of a confrontation with other claimants.  He said that the MDT should cover certain areas of the South China Sea that the Philippines has sovereign rights.

Lorenzana said that it’s about time that both countries review the provisions of the 67-year-old MDT, particularly the mounting security concerns in the South China Sea, to see if it is still relevant to the Philippines’ “national interest.”  He said the review is needed in order to make the alliance with the US stronger.  “It is the only country we have an alliance with,” he said.

Mutual Defense Treaty

The MDT was signed in 1951 and has remained in effect even after the 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA) expired in 1991 and its extension rejected by the Senate.   In 1994, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) took effect, which allowed a small presence of US Special Forces in Mindanao to help in the Philippines’ counterterrorism campaign.   In 2014 the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed.  Though eight bases have been identified for its use, it has yet to be implemented.

Article IV of the MDT states that an attack on either party will be acted upon in accordance with their constitutional processes and that any armed attack on either party will be brought to the attention of the United Nations for immediate action. Once the United Nations issues the orders, all hostile actions between the signatories of this treaty and opposing parties will be terminated.

But here’s the rub: The Security Council has 15 members, five of which are permanent members with veto power.  Russia and China are veto-wielding permanent members.  The other three are the US, UK, and France.   Therefore, in the event that China attacks the Philippines, China could veto any measure to restore peace, which would leave the Philippines at the mercy of the Chinese invaders.

The problem is — unlike the NATO’s automatic retaliation in the event a member is attacked — the MDT doesn’t have an “automatic provision.”  It merely provides for consultations according to its constitutional process after one of the parties is attacked.  But had the US forces been allowed to stay in 1991, the US forces stationed in the Philippines would have to respond immediately to an attack on the Philippines.  All it would take is for the US President to say, “Go.”  Sitting idly by wouldn’t be an option.  But without US forces on Philippine soil, authorization has to come from the US Congress.  By then, China would have firmly occupied the country.

With MDT rendered inutile for now, the EDCA’s eight bases around the country would allow interoperability, capacity building towards AFP modernization, strengthening AFP for external defense, maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.  In other words, EDCA would have been more effective than MDT in defending the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.  But the problem is: It has been politicized; thus, making it a “paper tiger.”

Lorenzana’s candid and blunt assessment of the US vis-à-vis Philippines’ security situation must have alarmed Malacañangand the Department of Foreign Affairs.  Foreign Secretary Locsin immediately went to Washington DC to meet with US National Security Adviser John Bolton.  The Philippine Embassy in the US capital issued a statement saying the two officials recognized the role of the two nations’ alliance in maintaining regional peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Price of sovereignty

In my article, “What price is sovereignty?” (January 20, 2014), I wrote: “The question of Philippine sovereignty has been debated over and over again since 1991 when the Philippine Senate voted to reject the retention of American bases. The nationalists were convinced that the Philippines didn’t need the protection of the U.S. against foreign invasion. They asserted that continued presence of American bases was an affront to Philippine sovereignty. However, they didn’t demand for the rescission of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which obligated the U.S. to defend Philippine territory in the event of foreign invasion. It’s like them saying, ‘We don’t want you around, but we expect you to defend us if we were invaded.’  Indeed, it’s a love-hate relationship that is nurtured to this day.

“But two years after the U.S. bases were closed in 1992, China seized the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in the middle of the night. And the Philippine Armed Forces couldn’t do anything to take it back.”

Now that the MDT’s effectiveness is put to question, is the Philippines ready to defend itself?  Probably not.  But the MDT would not suffice, simply because it is weak.  On the other hand, EDCA would provide an almost “automatic response” mechanism to an attack on Philippine territory.  What I fail to understand is what’s taking it so long to make EDCA operational?

Chinese interest on Palawan

It is interesting to note that last November, President Duterte told the Palawan provincial government that he would be compelled to expropriate the franchise of independent power producers in Palawan and sell them to “big players” to end the power outages in the province.  “China is itching just to get a hold of development here,” he said.  Duterte also decided not to allow any country to stockpile arms and ammunition in Palawan.

In my opinion, this would be the first step for China to get a strong foothold on Palawan, especially so that there is a plan to break Palawan into three provinces. Anders Corrs, a European-based international risk analyst said, “If China wants a military base on Palawan, mining rights, or fishing rights, after breakup it would have multiple officials with whom it can negotiate or bribe, playing one against the other.”

On Duterte’s decision to keep Palawan free from foreign arms stockpiles, Corrs said, “It would leave Palawan militarily vulnerable to the advantage of China.”  Indeed, China has been eyeing Palawan for at least three decades now, which makes one wonder: Without MDT and EDCA what do you think China would do next?

Geographically speaking, Palawan is only 100 miles away from the China’s militarized artificial islands in the Spratlys while there is the large Sea of Palawan that separates it from the rest of the Philippines.  And without MDT and EDCA, Duterte might just as well kiss Palawan goodbye.

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