Following Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana’s disclosure that China opposes a review of the 70-year-old Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), former Foreign Affairs Sec. Albert del Rosario urged Washington and Manila to revise and re-word the “rather ambiguous” treaty so that it spells out clearly that the US would come to the defense of the Philippines in case of any foreign attack.  

Lorenzana said China had opposed the review of the MDT that would trigger US treaty obligations in any armed attack on Philippine forces or attempts to take its territory through the use of force. 

Del Rosario said the Philippines and the United States have to clearly convey the message of enforcing the MDT to China to prevent conflict, as the country needs to recover from the Duterte administration’s seemingly mindless pursuit of pro-China policies and compromising the security alliance with Washington.

There is a proposal to review the MDT, including one from the Philippine Department of National Defense, apparently based on the ambiguity of the text of the 70-year-old treaty.

The country’s former top diplomat believes the MDT “can be made relevant in the South China Sea without need of formal re-negotiation.” 

“We are of the humble view that what is important at this time is not so much the text of the MDT, as the political will and commitment of the US and the Philippines in enforcing the treaty,” Del Rosario said in a virtual forum organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute to mark the 70th anniversary of the MDT.

He said the Philippines and the US need to continue their security dialogue to reach a common understanding on how the MDT will be applied in particular situations. 

“As shown by the renewed commitments of the US to the MDT declared in 2019 and 2021, it is the parties’ actual political will and commitment that will make the MDT effective and credible especially in the South China Sea,” Del Rosario said. 

“It is important that the parties are able to clearly convey the message of enforcing the MDT to an aggressor like China. Through this, a conflict hopefully becomes preventable through credible deterrence,” he added. 

The commitments of the US and the Philippines to the MDT, Del Rosario added, can be made iron-clad if they are anchored on their respective national interests. 

The MDT provides that the Philippines and the US will come to each other’s aid in case of armed attacks on Philippine forces, aircraft and republic vessels in the South China Sea. 

Lorenzana revealed that a former Chinese ambassador came to him when he first brought up the revision of the defense treaty.  The Chinese official, according to Lorenzana, warned him not to touch the MDT. 

Although Lorenzana did not name the Chinese envoy, China’s top diplomat in the Philippines was Zhao Jianhua, who ended his tour of duty in October 2019 after five years as China’s top diplomat in the county.

He said the US welcomed a review of the MDT but an “outside party” wanted the Philippines to “leave it as it is.” 

Del Rosario, for his part, said with the consolidating support of the Arbitral Award in the international community,  he said the Philippines should also continue to build security alliances with like-minded countries in addition to the MDT. 

He added that the Philippine government should actively build on this support by entering into agreements with countries to implement the award, welcome and join joint patrols and freedom of navigation and over-flight operations conducted by the US, United Kingdom, France, Australia and Japan, and the Philippines should modernize its navy, air force and military and develop its own credible defense posture to protect its land and waters from China’s incursions.

On the MDT, Lorenzana suggested a multi-lateral approach to the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea. The Defense chief noted how Beijing used “grey zone tactics” in the region, such as deploying maritime militia ships to assert its so-called claims.