Locsin: China’s coast guard law a test for PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty

Published February 20, 2021, 10:18 AM

by Argyll Cyrus Geducos

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., said the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States of America will be put to the test if the Philippines finds itself in trouble because of China’s new coast guard law.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. (PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO / MANILA BULLETIN)

Locsin made the statement after State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US was concerned by the newly enacted law, noting it could escalate maritime disputes, and could be invoked to assert unlawful claims.
“[It] strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate [China’s] maritime neighbors,” he said in a regular press briefing in Washington.

In a tweet, Locsin said the Philippines will just continue to do what it pleases under its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

“Well, we’re not reading it. We’ll just go about our Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters—fishing boats, Coast Guard, Navy boats—as we please until we run up against…whatever,” he said Saturday morning.

“Then we’ll know if the Mutual Defense Treaty amounts to a hill o’ beans, a cup of ’em or jackshit,” he added.

While acknowledging China’s right as a sovereign nation to enact laws, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a report this month that the coverage of China’s claims in the disputed waters “directly poses a threat” to the conduct of Philippine legitimate activities in the West Philippine Sea.

The DFA said it would amount to “acquiescence” if this remains unchallenged.

The Philippines, on January 27, 2021, issued a note verbale to China, becoming the first country to lodge a diplomatic protest against China’s Coast Guard Law.  

The MDT between the Philippines and the US was signed in 1951, binding the two countries to aid each other in case of foreign aggression.

In 2019, the US Embassy in Manila said that foreign government-sanctioned attacks initiated by militia or armed civilians in the South China Sea may trigger the MDT of the US and the Philippines.

Former US State Secretary Mike Pompeo also made it clear that because the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, under the treaty itself, any armed attack on Filipino vessels, Filipino aircraft will trigger the US’ obligations under the MDT.

In the same year, President Duterte called on the US to invoke the MDT, asking them to gather all their Seventh Fleet in front of China amid the tension in the West Philippine Sea. He, however, doubted if the treaty can be easily invoked since it would have to be decided by the US President.

The Seventh Fleet is a military formation of the United States Navy headquartered at US Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan, with some units based in Japan and South Korea. It is part of the United States Pacific Fleet and has at least 60 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

Suggestions about invoking the MDT with the United States surfaced following the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel near the Recto Bank in June 2019. The 22-man crew of the fishing boat was abandoned by the Chinese vessel, and later rescued by a Vietnamese boat.