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Philippines’ National Defense Secretary Says U.S.-Philippine Treaty Needs Update

September 9, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
Manila, the capital of the Philippines. (Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — At an event on Wednesday, reflecting on the 70 years the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty has been in place, the secretary for national defense in the Philippines said the countries need a comprehensive review of the treaty.

Chargé d’Affaires John Law, who is in the process of stepping down from the U.S. embassy in the Philippines, this week expressed confidence in the continuing bilateral relationship.

“Historically,” he said, “ our security alliance has been the backbone of U.S.-Philippine relations.”

A large part of that alliance is the mutual defense treaty.

The mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines was signed in 1951. At the time, the Philippines was still “reeling” from the effects of the Second World War, secretary of National Defense for the Republic of the Philippines, Delfin Lorenzana said. 

Lorenzana described the main provisions of the treaty as assurances of mutual defense, in which both countries would come to the aid of the other in the event of an attack, and of building up each other’s defense capabilities. He added that the need for mutual defense has never come. 

As America removed its military presence from the region, the Philippines became the biggest beneficiary of American equipment, receiving “hand me down” equipment, Lorenzana said.

The closure of U.S. bases in 1992 “starkly exposed” the inadequacy of the Philippines defense capability, Lorenzana said. 

The flow of “spares” that the country had been using to maintain its equipment stopped coming once the American bases were closed and as a result much of the equipment became inoperable, he said. 

Lorenzana, who has been national defense minister since 2016, has previously expressed the need for an update to the long-standing treaty. In 2018, he declared that his department was reviewing the treaty. 

The concern behind calls to reappraise the deal have much to do with growing tensions between the U.S. and China. The Philippines is looking for assurance of the extent of American commitment to the country.

A former U.S. colony whose independence was postponed by Japanese occupation in the Second World War, the Philippines had hoped that the treaty would lead to greater independence, a desire that hasn’t fully materialized, the defense minister said on Wednesday. 

The Philippines remains dependent on the U.S. for its security up to this day, he said.

The country wants the U.S. to back it against Chinese presence in its economic zone and to receive more updated weaponry in light of China’s rise.

The Biden administration has continued confrontations with China, continuing to publicly criticize the country and leaving the Trump tariffs in place, although they have stepped down the implied calls for regime change, experts say. 

The U.S. has attempted to reinforce its alliances in the region such as Taiwan, and experts say it may be part of a larger move to shift military resources away from the Middle East and towards the Asian Pacific without overburdening the U.S. budget, especially in light of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had distanced himself from the U.S. somewhat earlier in his term in a bid to open up to China, but he announced he had decided not to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement, a key part of the treaty, earlier this year, allowing U.S. ships to operate more freely there and for defense exercises to continue. According to reporting from NPR, Duterte said he had withdrawn his termination of the VFA as a “concession” for millions of coronavirus vaccines from the Biden administration.

The event was put on by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC-based national security think tank. A recording is available online.

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