PH, US in 'low-level discussion' on reviewing Mutual Defense Treaty

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 19) — The Philippines and US are still in "low-level discussion" on Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana's proposal to amend the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

Lorenzana himself revealed the status of the review during a joint media briefing with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday. It was Esper's first visit to Manila as defense chief.

"We are actually in discussion, low level discussion first, about my proposal and I think in one of these [Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board] meetings sometime this year it will be taken up," Lorenzana said.

Esper reiterated the US commitment to the 68-year-old treaty, which states that the two allies would assist each other should either of them be attacked by a foreign force.

"It's always good to look at these things from time to time, to review, and to clarify and strengthen it based on changes in the environment and the world situation," Esper said.

He stressed that the treaty applies to the entire Pacific region, including the disputed South China Sea. The U.S. is not a claimant to the global waterway, but it has criticized the alleged militarization of China, which claims almost the entire sea, rejecting the arbitral ruling that recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights to some of these areas.

China's incursions prompted the US to conduct more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea this year, Esper said, without citing statistics. These operations are aimed at urging China to abide by international law, which guarantees freedom of navigation and overflight in the high seas.

"The US rejects attempts by any nation to use coercion or intimidation to advance its national interests at the expense of others," Esper said.

Lorenzana first floated the idea of reviewing the MDT in December 2018, saying it does not provide a clear answer to whether or not the US would come to the Philippines' rescue in case tensions escalate in the South China Sea.

READ: Scrapping Mutual Defense Treaty with U.S. an option – Lorenzana

He said in February this year that a top-level panel of representatives from the US will come to the Philippines to discuss the review of the treaty, but no updates have been made public since then.

President Rodrigo Duterte invoked the pact in July following the sinking of a Filipino boat by a Chinese vessel near Recto Bank, an underwater feature in the West Philippine Sea also being claimed by China. Manila calls areas it claims and occupies in the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.

Malacañang later clarified that the President was just being sarcastic and is fully aware that the MDT can only be enforced if there's an "armed assault or attack" against any of the parties in the treaty. Article 4 of the MDT states, "Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes."

"[An] armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an 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," the agreement further states.

READ: Top PH officials disagree on need to review U.S. defense treaty