US reassurances of support in Spratly’s conflict illusory


MANILA — Invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the US is just “a useless crutch” the Philippines cannot rely on based on US jurisprudence, Bayan Muna’s Satur Ocampo said in a forum held at the University of the Philippines recently, summarizing the discussion of a panel of experts on law, geopolitics and governance. Yet, Filipinos are “being led by the nose” by a steady stream of reassurances coming from officials of the US and the Philippine government, creating an illusion that the US will help the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China on the Spratlys, wondered Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, president of BAYAN (New Patriotic Alliance).

For weeks now since the Aquino government invoked the said Mutual Defense Treaty, it reportedly “got its wish” when the US government repeatedly gave assurances of continued support.

But “If we would read the fine print of the Mutual Defense Treaty, which is being used as basis of our officials in saying America will side with us in case hostilities break out with China over the Spratlys, we would see that our reliance on the Mutual Defense Treaty and the assurances being given by the US government that they would side with the Philippines are purely illusory,” said former UP dean of Law Pacifico Agabin in the forum.

The former dean cited legal loopholes in the MDT and in US jurisprudence which, taken together, make the point clear that “those of us laboring under the impression the US will automatically come to our aid in case shooting erupts has no basis at all.”

Agabin said that a US legislation is required before Obama or any high-ranking official of the US Armed Forces can “automatically participate” in a Spratlys conflict. He explained that the American constitution reposes on the US Congress the power to declare war, to mobilize the US Armed Forces and to raise resources for it.
The US Congress passed a resolution in 1973 (War Powers Resolution) during the Vietnam War, stating that the US president can only introduce the US Armed Forces into hostilities in three cases: declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or in an emergency. It is the US Congress that has the power to declare war, said Agabin. The provision on specific statutory authorization would not apply because the Philippines is “not a US territory anymore.” A national emergency, meanwhile, consists of imminent attack on the US or its defined territories.

As such, based on Agabin’s explanation, the US can not readily mobilize its troops to come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of a shooting war with China over the Spratlys because it is hindered by US Constitutional provisions and the “phraseology” of the MDT itself.

“This RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty will not commit US automatically to war even if the Philippines is attacked,” said Agabin, citing that “everybody knows how hard it is to pass laws in the US.” He cited as example the fact that the US Congress is still debating up to now the matter of sending troops to Afghanistan.

Comparing also the phraseology used in the North Alliance Treaty Organization (NATO) to that in the RP-US Mutual defense Treaty, Agabin said, NATO’s has an automatic retaliation clause, which states that “each member commits itself to actions it may deem necessary.” But in the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty, what you will read instead is the phrase “in accordance with the constitution”.

Another patently useless agreement for Filipinos is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Citing BAYAN’s case questioning the validity of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Agabin also reminded the public that despite the “very forced” decision of the Philippine Supreme Court to uphold the VFA’s validity as a “binding treaty”, there remains the US Supreme Court ruling saying the opposite: that a treaty entered into by the US government is not considered binding on it until and unless the federal government decides to pass an enabling law.

In any case, the VFA, said Agabin, “refers only to visiting forces, an exception to the war powers of the US Congress.” That is because visiting forces should not be participating in hostilities but “only in military exercises (i.e. using blanks and not live bullets) and occasions for R & R.”

All in all, the assurances of the US authorities and our ambassador are very doubtful, Agabin said, adding that “the only hard assurance we can get from the US is for the US to re-arm the Philippines.”

Philippines as US pawn in its looming clash with China

If the bases of the supposed long-time military strategic partnership were illusory for the Philippines at least, “why is the Philippine government making a huge show of bashing China?” Araullo of Bayan asked.

Although both Araullo and Rep. Teddy Casiño of Bayan Muna are supporting the validity of the Philippine claims over Spratlys, explaining that there is reason indeed to assert that claim and to invoke the 2002 agreement between the claimants of Spratlys, both also condemned the Aquino government’s “posturing” in supposedly asserting the country’s sovereignty while laying it aside for the US. Even as they condemned China for violating its 2002 agreement with the other Spratlys’ claimants, the two cause-oriented leaders also warned against the Philippines’ mimicking the war-mongering of the US in the region.

The move has given US an excuse to step up presence not only in the Philippines but also in the region. According to Prof. Bobby Tuazon of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg), what the US has been doing is not a simple case of “muscle-flexing” but a case too of justifying its increased military projection. Noting that as the pretext of war on terrorism has been waning, “it (US) has to create, provoke or capitalize emerging tensions to justify its forward deployment.”

In fact, when Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff visited Beijing recently, he cited the United States’ “enduring presence” in the region as reason for its “not going away.” It warned against “worry, among others” that the ongoing incidents in the Spratlys “could spark a miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated.” Mullen cited too the “importance” to their allies of their continued stay in the region.
Tuazon said during the forum in UP that a situation like the dispute in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea can only help the war economy of the US. Earlier, Prof Agabin said something similar when he mentioned the war materials the Philippines would soon purchase from the US as it re-arms the Philippines.

Instead of playing right into the war-mongering of the US, Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy urged the Aquino government to “use the ASEAN card in diplomacy, rather than the US card.”

“We should not be led by the nose,” said Bayan’s Araullo. She said that even as the Philippine claims over Spratlys have validity, “it is crazy to go to war with China and crazier still to invite the US into it.”

At the end of the day, to effectively assert Philippine sovereignty and achieve genuine economic development – to enable the Philippines to avoid being in a situation where its arms and equipment are patently obsolete – the Filipino people should free itself from unequal treaties such as the Mutual Defense Treaty, the VFA among others, said Renato Reyes, secretary-general of BAYAN. He blamed the said treaties and others similar to it for having “stunted” the Philippines to the point that it only has a World War II war relic “exercising” militarily with the superior and modern arms of countries like US. (

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