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Sea Change

During a visit to the Philippines early this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave the assurance that “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.”


Secretary Pompeo was, of course, referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed by the US and the Philippines on August 30, 1958. The MDT was one of the pillars of the long and historic friendship between our two countries. It says so in the preamble of MDT: “Recalling with mutual pride the historic relationship which brought their two peoples together in a common bond of sympathy and mutual ideals to fight side-by-side against imperialist aggression during the last war.”


We need to remember that the MDT was forged five years after the end of US colonial period in the Philippines. The “special” relationship was forged when the Philippine Revolution against Spain got conflated with the Spanish-American War resulting in the Philippine-American War from 1899-1902. The Second World War and the Japanese occupation would provide Filipinos and Americans with a platform to fight together.


A lot has changed during the 68 years that the MDT has been in operation. The political and economic positions of both countries have changed. More significantly, the global order has been radically transformed since the 1950’s. This is why there have been calls for a review or strengthening of the treaty.


Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez has announced that the two countries are in talks, through the Mutual Defense Board, to strengthen the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. His counterpart, outgoing US Ambassador Sung Y. Kim, has said that the US welcomes the plan to review the MDT, saying that “any document, especially an agreement that important and that complicated, always needs to be looked at very closely as the circumstances surrounding the agreement or the alliance evolve.”


This sentiment was most eloquently propounded by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who urged a review the treaty with the United States because “the security environment in the region has become much more complex since the countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty was drawn up 68 years ago. Indeed, a number of developments have resulted in a sea change in geopolitics and security.


The MDT was signed during the ascendancy of American political and economic might. Today, that power has become vulnerable with ascendant nations like China and Russia undermining its traditional dominance in the region.


The treaty was signed a couple of years after the founding of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Today, international politics experts have noted the decline of multilateralism and international partnerships as global frameworks for trade and finance give way to state-led regional initiatives and bilateral deals. The inability of international organizations to reach a consensus on the economy and climate change highlights this transformation.


And while the MDT covered “an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties” it did not anticipate the changing nature of attacks due to the rapid development of new technologies. Cyber attacks on government and businesses, technology-centered attacks of political systems, privacy, and big data issues are some of the technology-driven “aggressions” of the new world order.


So after 68 years, and with so many new developments in the global political and security dynamics, it is the right time to revisit the MDT and see how it can be more attuned to the times and oriented to the changing relationship between the Philippines and the United States.