Philippines and America at a Crossroads
With the United States struggling around the world to maintain its influence, a crisis is brewing between the United States and the Philippines. As a result of this, the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries is in danger of becoming a treaty of the past. Since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, the foreign policy of the Philippines has charted a slow but steady course away from the United States and towards China. Duterte believes that U.S. influence in the region is waning and he is concerned that the U.S. is not living up to its end of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.
A brief history of relations between the United States and the Philippines.
While many Americans are aware that at one time the Philippines was a territory of the United States, few are aware of the circumstances behind the relationship between the United States and the Philippines.
Prior to the Philippines becoming a territory of the United States, the Philippines was under the control of Spain. At the end of the Spanish-American War, the Treaty of Paris of 1898 ceded the Philippines to the United States. Shortly thereafter the war between the United States and the Philippines began in 1899.
The leader of the Filipino resistance, Emilio Aguinaldo, had initially cooperated with the American military, believing that the United States was not an imperialistic power and that the U.S. would grant the Philippines independence. The Battle of Manila of 1899 forced Aguinaldo to reassess his beliefs of American intentions, and in November of 1899, Aguinaldo ordered a guerrilla war against the American military.
The fighting soon descended into a brutal struggle with atrocities committed by both sides, though the United States was the side which initiated the atrocities. Indeed, it can be argued that the U.S. military was more brutal than the policies of the former colonial power of Spain. The war resulted in the deaths of between 200,000 to 1,000,000 Filipino citizens. Sources vary as to the actual number of Filipino deaths, so the real number will never really be known.
While Aguinaldo was captured in March of 1901, the main part of the American-Filipino War raged on until July 1902. After the war on Luzon had ceased, fighting soon resumed with the Sultanate of Sulu.
It should be noted here, that the U.S. had signed the Kiram-Bates Treaty with the Sultanate of Sulu, and at the close of organized resistance in 1902, broke the treaty which resulted in the Moro Rebellion. It is during this period from 1902 to 1913 that the worst atrocities of the war occurred. The reason given by the U.S. government for breaking this treaty was the refusal of the Sultanate of Sulu to abolish slavery. The Moro Rebellion continued until the Battle of Bud Bagsak in 1913
In 1899, then-President William McKinley established the Schurman Commission, also known as the “First Philippine Commission.” The conclusions of the Commission recommended that the U.S. establish a Philippine civilian government based on universal male suffrage, the establishment of a bicameral legislative branch, and the establishment of a public school system for the all of the Filipino people. In 1916, the U.S. proclaimed the “The Jones Act” which promised eventual Filipino independence and instituted a Filipino Senate. In 1934, the United States authorized the total independence of the Philippines, and in 1946 the Treaty of Manila marked the end of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines and the establishment of the Philippines as an independent and sovereign nation.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. military bases in the Philippines were used as a major logistical and supply area supporting American combat forces in Vietnam.
The Philippines at the end of the Cold War became less of an important U.S. base, and in 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to ask the U.S. to remove its military bases from the Philippines, and this was accomplished in 1992.
China’s violation of the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In December of 2013, the People’s Republic of China invaded the Philippines EEZ at the Johnson South Reef which is part of the Spratly Archipelago. The Chinese sent the dredger Tianjang to the Johnson South Reef accompanied by PLAN combat naval vessels. Since then, China has constructed an additional six more artificial islands in the South China Sea. Several of these islands have been militarized with airfields capable of hosting military assets.
China justifies her illegal construction of these artificial islands by her claim of a 9-Dash line which it proclaimed in the Republic of China under the government of Chiang Kai-Shek. Originally dubbed the 11-Dash line, two of the dashes were deleted at the behest of Zhou Enlai, the then foreign minister. China has never filed a formal claim to the United Nations and has claimed and begun seizing the territorial waters of the Philippines using brute military force.
In 2016, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on a lawsuit brought by the Philippines against China’s seizure of reefs in its 200-mile EEZ. The court ruled that China’s claim of sovereignty of its 9-Dash line was without foundation according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and that China’s behavior violated the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.
Even though China is a signatory member of UNCLOS, it has refused to abide by the ruling and has begun to militarize the artificial islands, directly challenging the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines.
The Mutual Defense Treaty (MDF) between the United States and the Philippines.
After the Philippines became the Commonwealth of the Philippines, the U.S. and the Philippines signed the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951. This treaty was signed at the height of the Cold War. The treaty contains 8 articles that dictate that the U.S. and the Philippines come to each other’s aid in the case of attack. The articles of the Mutual Defense treaty can be found at this link.
The Philippines have fulfilled Article I of the MDF by attempting to resolve the attack on its sovereignty by appealing to the United Nations via its lawsuit against China in The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration using the UNCLOS agreement. The government of the Philippines has tried to resolve this by peaceful means as articulated by Article I of the MDF between the U.S. and the Philippines.
Doug Bandow, in an article for The National Interest, questions the utility of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines. Bandow argues that the cost to the United States far outweighs the benefits to the national security of the United States. In his article, Bandow ignores the realities of the economic interests of the United States and to the allies of the United States in the Western Pacific and East Asia. He also appears to be uninterested in the military vulnerabilities of India in allowing China to establish military superiority in the South China Sea, as well as damaging the values of the United States and its commitments to democracy and the rule of law.
The strategic economic, political and military importance of the South China Sea to the national security of the United States.
The economic interests of the United States and its allies in East Asia and in the South China Sea cannot be overstated. The United States, the current administration notwithstanding, has long championed free trade and freedom of the seas. It has also championed a world order based on the rule of law and order. The sea lanes that pass in the South China Sea in 2016 was worth $3.4 trillion. While only 6% of the trade that flows through the sea lanes of the South China Sea belongs to the United States, many U.S. allies in the region depend on this free flow of trade to maintain their economies. In particular, Japan depends on overseas trade to maintain a healthy economy, and if the South China Sea were to fall under the dominion of China, the political independence of Japan would become a thing of the past. If this happened, Japan’s considerable economic and manufacturing infrastructure and power would become a mere appendage to the economic and political interests of China to the detriment of the U.S. economy.
India’s economy, which is a rising power in Asia, would be tremendously affected by the South China Sea being under the sole control of China.
Up to 97% of India’s overseas trade is done by water, half of which passes through the Malacca Straights which China with its militarization of the artificial islands could close fairly easily with the military forces that have been garrisoned on the artificial islands.
More importantly, China would be able to isolate India from its friends in the West by closing the Malacca Straights and forcing her to receive any assistance from the West from trade routes that would go around the Cape of South Africa.
Because of China’s ongoing aggression, India launched a “Look Eastward Policy” (LEP) in the 1990s and has since upgraded the LEP to the “Act East Policy” which has broadened the LEP from simply engaging with the ASEAN states and by reaching out to the western democracies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and by implication the United States.
Clearly, the importance of the safe and free navigation of the South China Sea cannot be overstated, and that allowing a power such as China to fully control the South China Sea must be prevented.
As such, the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines for the United States must be viewed in a much broader context than the value that Bandow has placed on it.
The consequences for the United States in not honoring its commitments with the Philippines.
The “Pivot to Asia” was announced by the Obama administration with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article “America’s Pacific Century” published in October of 2011 in Foreign Policy magazine. In her article, Clinton rightly predicts that the future of American business and politics will be decided in Asia.
For the first 200 years of the American Republic, the ties to Europe was the centerpiece of the U.S. foreign policy and business. With Asia’s economic growth projected to be larger than the rest of the world combined in 2020, unless the United States competes in this area of the world, it will lose its economic standing in the world, and fall to a second or third-ranked economic power.
Current U.S. response to Chinese aggression.
The United States conducts Freedom of Navigation Patrols (FONOPs) to deny assertions from foreign governments that claim sovereignty over bodies of water that are not recognized by UNCLOS. Recently, FONOPs have been in the news regarding the U.S. and other countries FONOPs in the South China Sea areas where China has declared sovereignty. It should be noted here that the U.S. FONOPs do not endorse any other nation’s sovereignty over the disputed Spratly Islands. It merely asserts that China does not have the right to deny innocent passage of maritime trade in the region. As such, U.S. naval operations are not being done in response to the illegal Chinese seizure of the Philippines EEZ.
More recently, however, the U.S. under the Trump administration has begun to take a more assertive and aggressive role in working against the militarization of the South China Sea by China. On August 4th, 2019, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper asserted that China has been behaving in a predatory manner in regard to economics, intellectual property theft and “weaponizing the global commons.”
This follows statements made by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Bangkok on August 2nd, 2019 where he declared that China has engaged in decades of “bad behavior” that hampered world trade. He also criticized China’s Belt and Road Initiative that Pompeo suggested is used by China to ensnare vulnerable countries in debt and to use that debt for China’s political ambitions in foreign affairs.
While a welcome sign that the U.S. is finally taking China’s behavior more seriously, it still does not rise to the level of the U.S. supporting the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty. By appearing to be refusing to honor its commitments to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States is demonstrating to its Asian allies that it is not a dependable partner in the world of international politics, and these nations will rightly begin looking to a totalitarian power for economic growth and national security.
By the U.S. honoring its commitments to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty, and assisting the Philippines recover her EEZ, by military force if need be, the U.S. would prevent the rise of a totalitarian power, which could usher in an age of darkness with the whole world bowing to the “Middle Kingdom.”