US to defend PH in case of attack in South China Sea, Pompeo assures

By Roy Mabasa and Genalyn Kabiling

US State Secretary Michael Pompeo on Friday assured that any attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or government vessels in the South China Sea “would trigger mutual defense obligations” under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed by Manila and Washington in 1951.

“We have your back in the South China Sea,” Pompeo, relaying President Donald Trump’s assurance, told President Duterte during their meeting at the Villamor Air Base Thursday night.

Philippines' Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. (L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their bilateral meeting at the foreign affairs office in Manila on March 1, 2019. (TED ALJIBE / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN) Philippines' Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. (L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their bilateral meeting at the foreign affairs office in Manila on March 1, 2019. (TED ALJIBE / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

The visiting US official gave this assurance when he was specifically asked to clarify on American commitment to help the Philippines in case a shooting war breaks in the South China Sea.

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, republic vessels in the South China Sea would trigger defense treaty obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty,” Pompeo said during a press conference at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Pompeo disclosed that he spoke about the American commitment during his separate talks with President Duterte and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

“Our commitments under the treaty are clear. Our obligations are real. The South China Sea is certainly part of an important body of water for freedom of navigation,” he said.

With Pompeo’s assurance, the Philippines plans to scrap a review of its defense treaty with the US.

Locsin said on Friday that there’s no need to review the treaty after fresh assurances from Pompeo that the US will come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of an attack in the South China Sea.

But Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that while the Philippines is pleased by the assurance of Pompeo, he said there might be “some kinks” in the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States that “need to be clarified.”

“It's much better perhaps that it's clear-cut in the treaty itself so I think there is still need to review (MDT) despite the policy pronouncement,” Panelo said during a Palace press briefing, commenting on the US vow to come to the country’s aid if it is attacked.

“We will have to evaluate but we are pleased to note that the US has made a policy statement with respect to attacks on a Philippine vessel to be deemed as an attack against the US,” he added.

A possible review of the mutual defense would depend if “there are movements that will dispute or that will contradict what the US Secretary of State said.”

Secretary Pompeo pointed out that the administration of US President Trump has made a true commitment to making sure that the South China Sea remains open for the security of the countries in the region, of the world and open for commercial transit.

“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the US,” Pompeo said at a joint briefing with Locsin in Manila.

While the US remains committed to maintaining the vital economic sea lanes open, Pompeo, however, said the Philippines and all the countries in the region will need to do their part so that China "does not pose a threat to closing them down.”

During the press conference, Locsin said he does not believe that going down into the details of the MDT is the way the sincerity of the American commitment will be shown.

“They will respond depending on the circumstances but we are very confident that the United States has in the word of Secretary Pompeo and the words of President Trump to our President, ‘we have your back’,” Locsin said.

The Department of National Defense raised the need to review the provisions of the 67-year-old MDT amid the rising tension in the South China Sea last December.

Panelo acknowledged that it was the first time that the US made a policy statement that any attack on any Philippine vessel would trigger the application of the MDT.

“You will remember that when the President assumed office and he met with the Ambassador from US then, when he was asked, he could not give a categorical answer. In fact he was saying, ‘If our forces are attacked, then we will respond’,” he said.

The US commitment, however, does not include any offer of free weapons to the Philippines. “They will be providing us with arms – but not free. We’re going to buy it from them,” Panelo said.

In the same meeting with Pompeo, the President expressed his dismay with the botched acquisition of rifles from the US due to the opposition by some American lawmakers.

“The President related to the Secretary of State how he was disappointed when we were trying to buy rifles from them, but … some senators opposed it until we were not able to buy, that’s why we have to run to other countries,” Panelo said.

He said Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin was also puzzled why the country could not purchase weapons from the US despite the alliance between the two nations.

“Secretary Locsin commented – after in the courtesy call – he can’t even understand why we’re supposed to be allies of the US, and the US has been giving arms for free to other countries and yet, we, the strongest ally of the US, cannot even purchase rifles from them,” Panelo said.

Panelo said the President also thanked Pompeo for the courtesy call, and assured the country's steady ties with the United States.

“The President says overwhelming Filipinos are in favor of the Americans so he doesn’t think he could go against that,” he added.