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The U.S. quietly made a big splash about the South China Sea

Mike Pompeo just reaffirmed Washington has Manila’s back.

- March 18, 2019

On March 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our mutual defense treaty.”

To many analysts, Pompeo’s statement appeared to be the most significant action the Trump administration has taken to “redouble our commitment to established alliances” in the Indo-Pacific region, as promised in the 2017 National Security Strategy.

Yet, coming amid North Korea nuclear talks, India-Pakistan tensions, and China trade negotiations, the announcement made few headlines. Why did Pompeo make this statement — and what are the implications? Here’s what you need to know.

The U.S. and the Philippines signed a mutual defense treaty in 1951

This treaty commits the allies to “act to meet the common dangers” in case of 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.”

It has long been unclear, however, whether the South China Sea falls “in the Pacific” — in which case the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty would apply in the event of an armed attack there. If not, Manila would probably be on its own.

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President Trump privately promised Philippine leaders, “we have your back,” but no U.S. official had bound the United States in this way by publicly clarifying the commitment in decades. Thus, Pompeo’s assertion that “the South China Sea is part of the Pacific” is a significant move.

The last official U.S. statement came 20 years ago

In 1979, during negotiations over U.S. basing arrangements in the Philippines, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance wrote a letter to Foreign Secretary Carlos Romulo. In the letter, he promised that “an attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific would not have to occur within the metropolitan territory of the Philippines or island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific in order to come within the definition of Pacific area.”

In 1999, as tensions with China ramped up in the South China Sea, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard affirmed that Washington “stands by its statements in the Vance-Romulo letter of January 6, 1979 … the U.S. considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area.”

Pompeo just affirmed this position. The interesting question is why a similar clarification was not forthcoming any time in the past decade — even as the Philippines became more strategically important to the United States.

Manila faces abandonment fears

As China grew more assertive in the South China Sea, the Philippines looked to the United States for support. In 2012, China effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal after reportedly breaking a U.S.-negotiated agreement. Then in 2013, China began to reclaim and militarize seven disputed features in the Spratly Islands.

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Philippine officials struggled to respond. They asked the Obama administration to clarify the treaty commitment, but Washington would only say that the U.S. commitment was “ironclad.” Meanwhile, in response to growing tensions in the East China Sea, President Barack Obama explicitly stated the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applied to the Senkaku Islands.

The language in the U.S. treaties with Japan and the Philippines is different, but some in Manila viewed these differentiated approaches as a sign that the United States had effectively abandoned the Philippines.

Rodrigo Duterte brought these concerns to the fore when he came to power in 2016. Duterte began to openly question the value of the alliance. His foreign secretary noted, “America has failed us.” Duterte remarked of U.S. troops, “I want them out.”

Washington doubles down on the alliance

When the Trump administration came into office, U.S. leaders were worried that the Philippines might abandon the U.S. alliance. Duterte repeatedly sided with China and said he supported a “separation from the United States.” In December 2018, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana suggested the time had come to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap” the alliance.

The dilemma now is that the U.S. recommitment to the alliance also increases the risk of entrapment in an unwanted conflict. China might test the new U.S. “red line.” Or the U.S. support could create a moral hazard, spurring the Philippines to take more risky actions because the United States has clearly committed to come to its aid.

The U.S. and China are playing a dangerous game. What comes next?

Despite these risks, the Trump administration chose to double down on the alliance. In an important symbolic move in December, leaders in Washington secured the return of the Balangiga church bells, which U.S. soldiers had taken from the Philippines in 1901. Then Pompeo clarified the treaty’s applicability.

Nevertheless, Philippine leaders do not appear reassured. Nor have they publicly promised to support initiatives to bolster the alliance.

Was this a missed opportunity?

Many experts pushed for a clarification of the U.S. treaty commitment — myself included. But analysts expected to see the Philippines recommit itself to the alliance by fully implementing the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or engaging in deeper alliance coordination. Both steps would help the allies maintain a credible deterrent and power projection capability.

Instead, Philippine leaders this month criticized the U.S. commitment they long sought. Lorenzana stated, “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.” Thus, the U.S. action appears to have increased entrapment concerns, without substantially attenuating fears of abandonment or bolstering allied cooperation.

The Trump administration’s critics have charged that Washington has been overly transactional in its relations with allies. But the administration appears to have clarified the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty without getting anything substantial in return. The pressure will now be on both Washington and Manila to show that the alliance’s capabilities can match its rhetoric.

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.