Scarborough Role for U.S.?


“Pivot” has never been the best word for the Obama administration’s approach to the Pacific.  Neither has “rebalancing.” Both terms imply a new state of affairs. 

There’s nothing new, however, about the United States’ predominant role in guaranteeing peace and security in the Pacific. It has long been the region’s indispensible power. What the administration is doing is finding new ways to demonstrate America’s continuing commitment to this role. 

Notwithstanding the value of the measures it has taken to date, such as new Marine rotations through Australia and littoral combat ships rotating through Singapore, nothing will speak louder to the U.S. commitment than honoring its treaty obligations to the Philippines in the current stand-off with China around Scarborough Shoal. 

No one is talking about war in the South China Sea. Indeed, drawing a red line around the Philippines will make armed conflict less likely, not more so. Chinese leaders aren’t irrational.  They aren’t likely to miscalculate if they believe the immediate relevance of the U.S. treaty commitment. And although the U.S. doesn’t have a stake in the territorial dispute per se, its treaty is, indeed, highly relevant to the current impasse.     

The U.S.–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) “recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” It envisions three contingencies:

– An attack on the territory of the Philippines (or the U.S.);

– An attack on the “island territories under its (the Philippines or the U.S.) jurisdiction in the Pacific”; or

– An attack on either party’s “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

The implications of the first are obvious; it’s not in any way in play in the current conflict. The implications of the second have also been made clear by the United States; it doesn’t consider Filipino claims beyond its recognized borders subject to the treaty. (In fact, over the years, the U.S. has perhaps been too clear, and ultimately, misleading, on this score, as it is difficult to imagine the U.S. remaining neutral in the face of an armed attack on one of the Spratly islands under the effective administration of the Philippines.)   

In the current stand-off at Scarborough, there’s no question but that the third part of this equation is very much in play.  

In 1979, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance confirmed in an official letter to Philippine Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo that the MDT covers an “attack on Philippines armed forces, public vessels or aircraft” even if such attack does not occur in the “metropolitan territory of the Philippines or island territories under its jurisdiction,” thus separating the issue of territorial sovereignty from attack on Philippine military and public vessels.   

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard reaffirmed these assurances in 1999 during deliberations over the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. He also stated unequivocally that “the U.S. considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area.” 

These excerpts from official correspondence were released by the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs in early May of this year.  The U.S. hasn’t disputed their accuracy.

What the statements mean in the current context is that if any Philippine “public vessel” deployed around Scarborough Shoal comes under Chinese fire, such an act will result in the treaty being invoked. This doesn’t mean automatic armed response, but by invoking it, the United States formally recognizes the attack as “dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it (will) act to meet the common dangers.” The attack triggers formal bilateral consultations under the treaty to determine an appropriate course of action. (There’s nothing uniquely tentative about the U.S.-Philippines MDT in this regard. All of the United States’ security treaties in the region contain similar diplomatic nuance and consultation mechanisms.)

Formally invoking the treaty would require a response that could range from diplomatic censure to armed defense of Philippine vessels. The decision over what specific response to choose would be a political one and dependent on the circumstances of the conflict. Declaring Chinese activity in the South China Sea “dangerous to peace and security,” however, would have powerful effects in and of itself. With such a declaration on the table, it’s difficult to imagine life as usual in the U.S.-China relationship.

The Chinese are testing the mettle of the U.S.-Philippines treaty relationship. How the administration handles the challenge has implications throughout the region, in the capitals of other treaty allies, like Japan and Korea; in Taiwan, where the U.S. has special security responsibilities; and in places like India, where its credibility is already suffering from the premature pull-out from Afghanistan.  

In brief, if the administration doesn’t stand by its ally in the South China Sea, all the “pivoting” in the world won’t make up for the blow to U.S. credibility.  

Walter Lohman is Director of Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author, most recently, of The Heritage Foundation issue brief, “Scarborough Shoal and Safeguarding American Interests,” from which this article is adapted. 

filipino defender
November 17, 2012 at 01:37

agian troll evidence? you people are just lairs!

June 7, 2012 at 15:55

@vic: You didn’t get my point. The bottom line is, the Vienamese people have alredy made up their mind who their friends are.

June 7, 2012 at 15:50

@vic: This is CCP’s propaganda line, word for word. Nothing new. The bottom line is: we don’t trust you.

June 6, 2012 at 17:57

if SCS becomes a closed sea, this is a great advantage to australia, cape york peninsula and Darwin port could be a busy international stopover ports on commercial boats pass by from the middle east, africa, europe to asia, so it is generating money for australia.It is an excellent step for China and for Australia, but the worst for Japanese and Americans do not harm

June 5, 2012 at 21:16

@Vic It might be the reason why some thinks we are completely colonized. It’s because we are always welcoming of visitors of any Nationality and we go out of our way.

Yes, Filipino per se is warm even during calamities you could still see Filipino’s smiling even if they have lost their homes. Even I am astounded on how they can still smile.

June 5, 2012 at 08:25

I must admit that Filipinos are very nice as social beings. They are easy going and very sociable. I have yet to meet others who are as warm as Filipinos. It must be the “melting pot culture” factor.

June 5, 2012 at 08:09

China does not, nor will it, actively “seek” global leadership. It has enough internal problems of its own. It’s priority is internal stability and then security from external threats. It is slowly arranging bilateral exchange of monetary currencies as a better means for international trade.

Any global leadership status or importance, if it comes, will be due to her size in international trade. People should read Chinese history – not a favorite subject for non-Chinese (quite understandably as there is no interest to know about something that is not one’s own). Chinese will try to understand the world, but there is no Chinese governmental push to get others to understand China. There is no love lost in this situation.

June 5, 2012 at 06:26

An early start in civilization gives you a strong identity. But that’s not enough for global leadership, especially when you are misusing this identity, having denigrating it. The way China is glorifying its past, certainly a brightone, only amplifies chauvinism among its populace. Your country has an asset but your government does not know how to exploit it, or rather they does not use it for the benefits of your country image.

June 5, 2012 at 06:09

“As Mao, he does NOT feel grateful to Chenault’s…”

June 5, 2012 at 06:07

John Chan is a fervent Maoist. As Mao he does feel grateful to Chenault’ Flying Tigers volunteers. He is deeply grateful to the Imperial Army of Japan.

June 5, 2012 at 01:53

Yes, yes. China should also pledge to give 50/50 to the American people for any oil they find in the South China Seas. The alternative is massive regime change plot like the ones in Middle East. Cheaper for China to kowtow to America now, otherwise fighting will be expensive.

June 5, 2012 at 01:07

there are so many rivalries and mutual distrust in between the Asian neighbours that we dont have any common or aligned security framework, the situation provide west an opportunity to gain some leverage and have partners to have security and in-situ develop economic relations.

June 5, 2012 at 00:03

No, not surprising. These people have been around for a long time. Vietnam was under the dominion of the Chinese empire. Everyone wants to be his own boss. The same goes for a lot of provinces in China. Taiwan is a Chinese province, but would you rather be a Taiwan President or a Taiwan provincial governor. For OLD countries, the tendency is to disintegrate. There are a lot of dialects and languages, which is why China uses a non-phonetic script to hold the very diverse people together. Vietnam & Korea threw out the Chinese script. Japan has partly threw out the Chinese script. The written script is the clue.

America is a new country, with no historic excess baggage. In time, it will develop the baggage. Europe is trying to build a united Europe through the Euro currency. China did it a long time ago with a written script.

China is the future, mainly because Chinese have an early start with civilization. A civilization has an organic nature, it grows, matures, goes into full bloom and eventually reaches a terminal stage. China is showing what happens with overpopulation and high density living.

Look at California, see how diverse people are. It is very vibrant. Deng once told the American president, please do not criticize us, in time you will know the problem. As a nation matures, it will have the same problems; after all, we are really from the same human stock.

June 4, 2012 at 21:30

Just a correction, Philippines was granted Independence because of the Tydings-McDuffie act which created the Philippine Commonwealth and would grant Independence after a period of 10 years.

It’s just tough luck for us that the 10 years so happen to be 1946, and we opted Independence rather than delaying it due to the war.

June 4, 2012 at 21:05

@Vic The clannish culture is Oriental not Western, so if you have to blame something then blame it on our Oriental Culture.

It does not apply that we are more western oriented in our culture that we are completely colonized, that is why we are in GLOBALIZATION wherein CULTURES mingle and adapt. Filipino culture is alive and well you just might have a hard time spotting it since it’s a melting pot. It’s a combination of Spanish, Tribal, American, Chinese, and Indian cultures.

June 4, 2012 at 19:54

@scdado7: Mr. proudchinaman, “wisemen speak because they have something to say, fools (like you) because they have to say something” — Plato.

June 4, 2012 at 18:52

@vic: What I found during my month-long trip throughout Vietnam at the beginning of the year contradicts your statement (be it from your thought or CCP feed). The Vietnamese people from all walks of life seem to welcome any country (especially the US, Canada, etc…) except china. Makes you wonder why.

papa john
June 4, 2012 at 16:53


What is your point here? Talking about foods, America is a place you would find every ethnic food we have in the world. Your Chinese cuisine is found every corner here. Do we have to pay a loyalty fee here every time we eat Cantonese dimsum? The same goes for Italian pizza?

By the way, have you ever tried any ethnic foods besides of your Chinese dumplings? I guess not, so I suggest you should try at least once to see how tasty they are. I recommend you should try to ones, you Chinese consider “barbarians” first like Filipino foods. Here is the link for the best ones. Try some and tell me how you appreciate for the culture.

Imran Abubakar
June 4, 2012 at 16:21

Americans are friends!THEY ARE G.I. JOE. we give them oil… they will protect us… USA is in trouble because of their economy… I think they nee a little help from one of their ALLIES the Philippines… I am in favor of sharing 50/50 oil deposits to the AMERICAN PEOPLE… GOD BLESS AMERICA… GOD BLESS THE PHILIPPINES
-U.S.A please remember the sacrifices we made in the past, the forgiveness we shared to the world. may our friendship and love lasts forever.

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