President B. S. Aquino III apparently thought he and US President Barack Obama would be playing China together.  Obama said however that they’re not playing China right now, but that the US would defend the Philippines if attacked. This had some political pundits confused.  What exactly did Obama mean?

“The US has no plan to contain China.”  China is now the world’s largest trading nation, according to the latest statistics, and is outspending almost every other country on defense outside of the US. Many China-watchers  seem to believe China will soon rule the world—one global bestseller by Martin Jacques is entitled, “When China Rules the World. ” But  Obama did not come to Asia to embrace that position.

He obviously has a soft spot for B. S. III.  But he has seen how unmusical the guy is on any serious question.  Even when the guy appears headed in the right direction, he self-destructs as soon as he “vocalizes” his position.  Obama could not afford to let this loose cannon, this Philippine version of Kim Jong-un,  mess up things for Washington. He had to restrain his poodle.  It is within this context that one must read Obama’s statement.

What about  this? “The US commitment to defend the Philippines against an armed attack is ironclad.”  This is music to the ears of those who believe war is  the only solution to our maritime and territorial problems, and that so long as the US is on our side, we could afford to have a  war where we could lose millions of our people. Being told that the US will come to our defense may sound reassuring, but it is not nearly half as reassuring as our never having to be defended by anyone from anybody else at all.

The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty  is not as ironclad as Obama puts it. Article IV of the treaty   provides: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either side of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”  This means  the US is not obliged to respond automatically to any armed attack against the Philippines,  but must leave the matter to the wisdom of Congress.

Thus from the very beginning, this absence of an automatic retaliatory clause (found in the NATO document) has been a major flaw of the MDT.  Of course, from Vietnam to Iraq, the US President has never waited for authority from Congress before intervening.  But there is no assurance he will act likewise in a Philippine crisis.

The US has long clarified when the MDT could be invoked.  In his Jan. 6, 1979 letter to then-Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance said an armed attack on the “metropolitan territory” of either of the Parties or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific automatically activates the Treaty, except that an attack on Philippine armed forces, vessels or aircraft in the Pacific would not have to occur within the metropolitan territory of the Philippines or island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific in order to come within the definition of Pacific area in the Treaty.

The country’s “metropolitan territory” includes all of the land areas and all adjacent waters subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines, in accordance with international law, lying within the area delineated by Spain and the US in the Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898, and the Treaty of Washington concluded between the US and Britain on Jan. 2, 1930.

An attack on Philippine troops, public vessels or aircraft in disputed waters would be sufficient to call the MDT into action, even if the US did not support our position on the territorial dispute. But whether the US President would act promptly or await authorization from Congress, no one can say.  Neither can we say that the EDCA,  which Defense Secretary  Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg signed on April 28, would accelerate the response.

I was pleased to see the EDCA  evolve from one originally intended to be signed by the US Department of Defense and the Philippines’ Department of National Defense only into one signed between the two governments.  But I have serious doubts it can stand  without Senate concurrence. Sec. 21, Article VII of the Constitution provides: “No treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the Members of the Senate.”

And Sec. 25 of Article XVIII provides:  “After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the  Philippines and the United States of America concerning Military Bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

The “troops” referred to in the EDCA are precisely the same troops that will create camps and “non-bases” within Philippine military camps and bases.  And the war materiel that will be prepositioned in “agreed locations” constitute the “facilities” referred to in the Constitution.  One critical issue is the “rent-free” provision of the agreement.   This was a basic flaw in the 1947 military bases agreement, which Marcos had tried to cure a few years before he was ousted.  Has B. S. III learned nothing at all from our earlier errors?

— Francisco S. Tatad