DND eyes review of Mutual Defense Treaty with U.S.

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Filipino and American soldiers in a joint military training activity. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 20) — Would the U.S. come to the Philippines' rescue in case tensions escalate in the disputed South China Sea?

The country's Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the U.S. does not provide a clear answer, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday, and this is why his department wants a review of the 67-year-old agreement.

"We'll look into that, na mareview natin (to review it)," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a press briefing. "Tingan muna natin kung ano yung provision diyan (We'll first see the provisions there), discuss it with them with the end view of reviewing it to make it stronger."

The MDT, signed by the Philippines and U.S. in 1951, states that both countries would assist each other when either of them is attacked by a foreign force. This includes armed attack "on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific," article 5 of the MDT states.

Lorenzana described the U.S. as "very ambivalent" on whether the MDT covers islands in the South China Sea within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in these areas, but China rejects the landmark ruling and continues to claim almost the entire global waterway.

"The U.S. has always said that they will not meddle into territorial disputes [saying] 'wala kaming pakialam diyan, hands off kami,'" Lorenzana said.

"In fact Scarborough Shoal na napakalapit lang, [124 nautical miles] lang from Masinloc, Zambales, mukhang hindi pa natin masiguro sa kanila na kasama yan sa metropolitan Philippines," Lorenzana added.

The Philippines lost control over Scarborough after a 2012 standoff with China, prompting Manila to file a case for international arbitration. The U.S. then said it would "remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines," without detailing any possible form of intervention. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that the U.S. "[does] not take sides on the competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea."

This remains the position of the U.S.

Asked if the U.S. could help the Philippines in its maritime row with China, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim told CNN Philippines, "I think our position on the whole South China Sea situation has been quite consistent, and you've heard it before many times. We call on all claimants to refrain from any aggressive unilateral actions. We call on all countries to refrain from militarization of those features."

Today, what concerns the Philippine government the most is not any possible hostile situation with China but the rising tension between the East Asian giant and the U.S. – which could endanger the Philippines.

"Since it is being held here dito sa ating backyard lang baka mainvolve tayo (Since it is being held here in our backyard, we might be involved) since we have an MDT with the U.S. baka ma-involve tayo sa bakbakan na 'yan at saka nasa lugar natin e (we might be involved in that war and it's within our area), it's within the West Philippine Sea," Lorenzana said, echoing President Rodrigo Duterte's worries.

Although the U.S. is not a claimant country in the South China Sea, it conducts freedom-of-navigation operations in international waters around the disputed area and calls out China's alleged militarization in the region.

Duterte earlier said the U.S. and other countries should just accept the "reality" that Beijing "is already in possession" of some disputed areas in the South China Sea to avoid tension in the region.

READ: Duterte: South China Sea is now in China's hands, why create friction?

Meanwhile, Lorenzana underscored the importance of forging a better alliance with the U.S. "because it is the only country we have an alliance with."