Scarborough Role for U.S.?

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“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. 

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