Earlier this month, in a significant development for the U.S.-Philippine alliance and U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while on a trip to Manila, reaffirmed the fact that the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines should its vessels or forces be attacked in the South China Sea. While Pompeo’s statement is essentially derived from a decades old treaty that undergirds the U.S.-Philippine alliance and constitutes the latest bed by Washington to reaffirm this commitment clarity, it is one that carries considerable weight given Manila’s longstanding concerns on this front, the challenges posed by China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and concerns about the prospects for the alliance itself under President Rodrigo Duterte. Yet at the same time, the true significance of this new community clarity still remains to be seen will rest in the actions taken by both sides in the coming months and years.
As I have noted before, managing the opportunities and challenges of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, undergirded by the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) has historically proved a difficult task for both Washington and Manila, in part due to the distinguishing features of the alliance relative to the other four formal U.S. alliances in Asia as part of the San Francisco System – the others being Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand. These include limited residual anti-American sentiment in the Philippines tied to the legacy of decades of U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the first-half of the twentieth century; the high degree of Philippine dependence on U.S. military assistance and difficulties Manila has faced in making progress with its own military modernization; and the relatively lower status accorded to U.S. Southeast Asian alliances in the post-Vietnam War period in what has historically been more of a Northeast Asia-centric U.S. Asia policy bureaucracy.
One of the aspects of the challenges within the U.S.-Philippine alliance has been with respect to commitment clarity in the scope of Article IV and Article V of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), and specifically whether this covers an attack that the Philippines may experience in the South China Sea. While there had been a previous assurance given on this score in 1998 during the Clinton years by then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, the fact that the Obama administration did not publicly restate this in unambiguous terms during its tenure despite the challenges that the Philippines faced in the wake of growing Chinese assertiveness – as it had done with respect to Japan and the East China Sea – was seen as a missed opportunity to demonstrate the utility of the alliance and the importance that Washington ascribes to it. The onset of the Duterte and Trump administrations had also inserted additional complexities with respect to this question of commitment clarity, with talk of an alliance review and a clear divergence on some strategic questions including China’s role in the region and the issue of the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, the United States finally moved in the direction of reaffirming commitment clarity on this score with Pompeo’s public reaffirmation of the scope of the MDT. Reading from written remarks in a press briefing following his meeting with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Pompeo reiterated the fact that, “as the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty.” The intent of statement, which followed a section in Pompeo’s fuller remarks focused explicitly on Chinese actions in the South China Sea and their threat to Philippine security, was unmistakable. And according to officials familiar with Pompeo’s engagements in Manila, this clear signal was also subsequently reinforced in his interactions with Philippine interlocutors as well.
There is no doubt that Pompeo’s statement constitutes a significant step for U.S. policy. At the most basic level, the United States has begun to ease lingering ambiguities that have persisted regarding whether an armed attack on Philippine forces in the South China Sea would trigger defense obligations under the MDT. Even though this is but a reaffirmation of a commitment essentially made during the Clinton years, updating this was unquestionably necessary given the changes we have seen in the regional security environment in recent years, including the South China Sea. Beyond rhetoric, this clarification has potentially important implications for how the United States and its allies and partners could respond to scenarios that could arise in the coming years. All indications by officials on both sides are that this was a statement made with direct applicability with respect to how the Philippines perceives that the United States would respond in the South China Sea if Manila were the victim of aggression.
Beyond that, at a more strategic level, the United States has taken yet another step that reinforces the direct importance and relevance of the U.S.-Philippine alliance for Manila’s own security. As was suggested previously, Pompeo’s reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment should be viewed within the context of a grievance that dates back to the Obama administration, where the lack of clarity by Washington on this score had been acknowledged even by proponents of the alliance as being a missed opportunity. That opportunity has now been seized, and belated though it may be, it is nonetheless a powerful reinforcement of the importance Washington sees in the alliance as part of its wider, ongoing Indo-Pacific strategy. U.S. defense officials have already begun to make this point publicly as well as part of their regional approach, with a case in point being U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Phil Davidson’s reiteration of this commitment clarity as part of his remarks on the U.S. FOIP strategy in Singapore last week.
But lest one gets carried away by focusing on just the significance of this increased commitment clarity, it is also important to keep in mind its limits to get a true sense of what this can and cannot do. Doing so is not only essential for keeping this single development in perspective, but also understanding it within the context of the opportunities and challenges that exist as both sides manage the alliance relationship more generally now and in the future.
First and most obviously, the restatement of commitment clarity by Pompeo in and of itself does not tell us much about how that rhetoric would translate into reality. We have already seen Philippine officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, rightly point out in varying ways that a public statement by a secretary of state ought not to be conflated with more formalized understandings, including written additions or amendments to the MDT itself which would be more substantial and sustainable. But more fundamentally, it is not yet clear if this rhetorical reassurance by Washington would jumpstart a serious and much-needed discussion by the two sides about how this would translate into responses both countries would take in specific scenarios.
Ideally, rather than a fixation on the value of Pompeo’s statement, such a discussion would take place with the level of granularity that is needed, and it would even yield the sort of convergence in outlooks and coordination in responses that both sides would ideally seek. Beyond the important policy implications inherent in such a deeper dive on the part of alliance managers, this could also prove critical in how the longer-term significance of this additional commitment clarity is assessed. If this is to be eventually seen not just as a long overdue security guarantee Washington provides to Manila on the South China Sea which it then pockets, but a serious conversation by two allies about how to manage a shared challenge, those discussions ought to be had, even if we may not hear much about them in the public domain.
Second, and more broadly, the restatement of commitment clarity by Pompeo alone also does not reveal much about how this would impact the wider issue of ongoing efforts to review the U.S.-Philippine alliance amid the recent concerns expressed by Manila. Though there may be the expectation among some that Pompeo’s additional commitment clarity would ease some of the Duterte administration’s concerns or smooth and even obviate the need for a so-called review process, the extent to which this is true is not yet clear. Beyond the differing accounts seen in the remarks of Philippine officials, it is also important to keep in mind the sobering reality that whatever is said, Philippine concerns are in fact rooted not just in what Washington does, but also Duterte’s deeply-held and clearly expressed distrust of the United States and affinity for China, which cannot but affect how his administration behaves as well.
This is a critical, if basic, point to keep in mind. Despite the hype around Washington’s actions including Pompeo’s increased commitment clarity, the prospects for the alliance under Duterte rests not just in what the United States does, but how the Philippines responds with Duterte at the helm. And while some may hope that this commitment clarity will be reciprocated by Manila in some way and ease some of Duterte’s U.S. suspicions, that hope ought not to be confused with expectation. For a dose of realism, consider the fact that if one zooms out from the impressive array of U.S.-Philippine engagements that continue to occur, thus far, by any objective measure, we have seen a dynamic under Trump and Duterte where the actions Washington has taken – from substantive ones such as boosting assistance to more symbolic ones aimed at addressing concerns Duterte has raised such as the return of the Balangiga Bells – have far exceeded anything that Manila has done in response, whether measured in terms of progress on the Obama-era Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) or its general response to regional security issues including the South China Sea.
Third, and finally, from a longer-term perspective, it is also important to remember that it remains to be seen how this restatement of commitment clarity will factor into the trajectory of the overall U.S.-Philippines alliance looking ahead to the next few years. The commitment clarity issue in the alliance is merely the symptom more complex structural factors that must be addressed but cannot be done by just the two current administrations alone, be it Manila’s limited military capabilities and shifting threat perceptions, or Washington’s ambivalence on the status of the alliance within its wider network of regional relationships and where the South China Sea ranks in the hierarchy of its priorities in the Asian security landscape. Indeed, the fact that we have two very unorthodox administrations in Manila and Washington also inserts an additional layer of complexity because there will be questions inevitably raised about the sustainability of what each does irrespective of what is accomplished, and that extends to commitment clarity as well.
All this is to say that while it may be tempting to see commitment clarity as representing the final word in Washington’s commitment to the Philippines or a turning point in what has been a rocky alliance relationship, in actual fact, the complex past of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and the uncertainty inherent in the relationship now and in the future suggests that caution is warranted in jumping to that conclusion too soon. There is of course the possibility that this ends up smoothing a rocky alliance relationship, or even revitalizing it if Beijing overreaches with respect to the Philippines and the South China Sea and causes the Duterte administration to lean closer to Washington under Trump. But this exists alongside other scenarios, including one of continuity where we see more individual gains for the alliance occur such as Pompeo’s statement even as strategic issues remain unresolved, or dramatic change where Trump’s ouster in presidential elections in 2020 sees yet another reset for the alliance.
Of course, as was highlighted at the outset of this piece, all this is not to understate the importance of the step that the United States has finally taken in reaffirming the clarity of its commitment with respect to the Philippines: credit is unquestionably due to the Trump administration for this long overdue move. But it is to suggest that the true significance of this step is still very much up in the air amid a broader, ongoing conversation about the future of the alliance, and that realizing its full value will rest in the actions taken by both sides in the coming months and years to address some very real challenges that they face and their approaches to them. One should not lose sight of this longer-term perspective even amid the focus on the immediate aftermath of Washington’s reaffirmation of its commitment clarity.