PHL, US reaffirm mutual defense support amid ‘emerging threats’

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES and the United States have adopted new Bilateral Defense Guidelines, reaffirming that any armed attack on Philippine security forces anywhere in the South China Sea would force the two countries to invoke a 1951 treaty.

In the six-page document, the two countries reconfirmed the “continued relevance” of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in addressing “current and emerging threats.”

Both countries acknowledged that the “continued modernization” of the US-Philippines alliance is “essential” to keeping the Indo-Pacific region “free, open, secure, stable and prosperous.”

Under the guidelines, the two countries will enhance their coordination and bilateral planning.

It states that consistent with the MDT, “the countries intend to maintain close consultations when either the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of either of the Parties is threatened by an external armed attack in the Pacific.”

Either country may request support “when it assesses that a threat is imminent or when indicators of an armed attack may arise.”

The two countries should also expand information-sharing “on the principal threats and challenges confronting the alliance to identify at the earliest possible stage any indications of threats to the peace and security of the United States and the Philippines.”

Aside from the MDT, the new guidelines also bank on other pacts, including the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and 2017 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, among others.

The guidelines also aim to help modernize the Philippines’ defense capabilities, with the US set to work “closely” on the Philippines’ defense budget planning, including the development of a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap “to identify priority defense platforms and force packages over the next five years.”

The two countries will also expand investments in non-material defense capacity building in the form of education and training exchanges, among others.

Under the guidelines, the US and the Philippines also seek to deepen interoperability and people-to-people ties by orienting bilateral exercises and activities towards improving combined ability to deter and counter armed attacks on ground, air, maritime, or amphibious forces on either country in the Pacific Area, including the South China Sea.

It also covers “threats in space and cyberspace, while expanding the scope, scale, and complexity of such exercises and training.”

In line with the two countries’ goal to combat transnational and non-conventional threats, Washington and Manila will boost cyber defense and cyber security cooperation “to secure critical infrastructure and build protection against attacks emanating from state and non-state actors.”

They will also identify opportunities to develop the armed forces’ capacity to support civilian-led responses to natural disasters and other humanitarian crises.

They also want to expand capacity-building activities to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear-related attacks as well as counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Under the new guidelines, Washington and Manila also want to contribute to global and regional peace and security by, among others, participating in multilateral fora, particularly under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

These include the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus and ASEAN Regional Forum defense-related meetings.

Further, the two countries will identify appropriate opportunities for third-party participation and observation from other nations’ armed forces.

Meanwhile, China firmly opposes any country citing bilateral treaties to interfere in the South China Sea and undermine China’s territorial interests and rights, the foreign ministry said on Thursday.

“The South China Sea is home to all regional countries and should not be a hunting ground for external forces,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing when asked about a US move to reaffirm its decades-old security alliance with the Philippines.

A lawmaker, meanwhile, said the Philippines should increase its joint patrols with neighboring Asian countries to deescalate tensions with China.

“Military agreements will just exacerbate the current situation,” House Deputy Minority Leader and ACT Teachers’ Party-list Rep. France L. Castro said at a Kamuning Bakery Café media forum on Thursday.

Ms. Castro said the Philippines must lobby at international bodies like “the Asian Parliamentary Assembly and the Inter-Parliamentary Union to condemn such actions and active incursions of China in our territory.”

“It is also best to increase coast guard patrol as well as coordinate the launch of joint patrols with countries who also have claims in the (South China Sea) like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Taiwan,” Ms. Castro added.

She said that joint patrols and international pressure are “peaceful yet assertive ways to defend our territory.”

A fisherfolk group also expressed opposition to the renewed US-Philippine pact, saying increased military exercises just add to their losses from China’s aggression. 

Ronnel Arambulo, spokesperson of Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA), told BusinessWorld that fishermen are already losing 70% of their income from Chinese harassment at sea, and US presence adds to their difficulties.

“It is clear to us that these agreements (between the US and the Philippines) will only worsen the struggles of fisherfolk because it will damage the fishing sites,” he said in Filipino.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., speaking to US senators led by foreign relations committee chair Robert Menendez, said defense and security engagement remains the key pillar of US-Philippines relations, according to a statement on Thursday from the Presidential Communications Office.

Mr. Marcos also expressed his government’s intention to deepen cooperation with the US in the areas of supply chain, health and health security, environment, energy security, and interconnectivity.

The meeting was part of Mr. Marcos’ five-day visit to Washington and followed separate dialogues with US President Joseph R. Biden and US Vice President Kamala Harris. — with Beatriz Marie D. Cruz and Reuters