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Will the US help us in a fight with China?

Maybe, but likely not, secret memo explains
IS Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. right to claim that the United States will come to our aid in case China attacks our vessels in disputed areas in the South China Sea?

The short answer: maybe, if Chinese forces attack us first, and we didn’t shoot first. But most likely, no. The Americans will decide at their whim as the provisions of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) are ambiguous.

The US will simply interpret the treaty the way its sees fit in the actual situation. More importantly, it will base its decision on whether aiding us and fighting the Chinese in a disputed territory is worth risking a nuclear war with China, especially as it has developed only in the past several years a blue-water Navy at par with the US.

This is not speculation, nor my analysis. The way the US really interprets the treaty was revealed in 2009 when a 1976 secret memorandum was declassified by the US State Department’s Office of the Historian. While the stance was made in response to the demand of the late President Ferdinand Marcos for a “clear written statement” in 1976, it remains the same today.

Memo explaining US stance on MDT

The memo was made when Marcos asked the US for a written statement if it would aid us militarily in case China attacks vessels of a consortium led by the Rockefeller-owned American Oil Co., which his government gave authority to explore for oil in the Reed Bank.

This is the same area that President Benigno Aquino 3rd called the Recto Bank in 2012, where the exploration vessel of the venture, mainly of First Pacific Co. Ltd. and business tycoon Enrique Razon, was driven out by the Chinese in 2011. That started Aquino’s belligerent stance against China — egged on by his foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, who had been a high First Pacific official for decades. That stance eventually led to the arbitration suit against China filed in 2013.

To address Marcos’ demand, then Presidential Assistant for National Security Affairs Brent Scowcroft sent a memorandum to President Gerald Ford, which he approved through an initial at the end of the document.

Following are the relevant parts of the memorandum (breakers are in the original):

“Our military base negotiations with the Philippines are stalemated over two issues: whether our Mutual Defense Treaty requires us to come to the aid of Philippine forces if attacked in the disputed Reed Bank area, and the amount of military assistance we will offer in exchange for use of Philippine bases. Secretary Kissinger is scheduled to hold discussions with Philippine Foreign Secretary Romulo on October 6 on these subjects and needs your guidance prior to that meeting.

Background on the Reed Bank
“The Reed Bank is a submerged shelf in the South China Sea about 250 kilometers from the Philippine island of Palawan. The Spratly Islands rest on this shelf. Peking, Hanoi, Taipei and Manila all claim title to the Spratly Islands and to the Reed Bank as an extension of the continental shelf of those islands. The Philippines also claim the Reed Bank as part of its continental shelf running from Palawan Island. All of the countries except the PRC have militarily occupied one or more of the Spratly Islands.

“The Philippines recently granted concessions to a private consortium headed by Amoco to explore and drill for oil in the Reed Bank. Philippine military units in the area have been strengthened to protect these exploration activities, and air and sea patrols in the Spratlys have been increased.

“This stepped-up activity has already produced one situation in which Vietnamese troops on one island fired at a Philippine plane. Peking has also registered a private and public protest over Manila’s actions.

“President Marcos has asked us for a clear written statement of whether we will respond under the MDT if his forces are attacked while operating in the Reed Bank. Marcos made clear that a formal answer on this question must precede any further progress on the base negotiations.

The Reed Bank issue
“Marcos’ request that we give him a written guarantee that we will defend his forces in the Reed Bank area poses a dilemma.

“The MDT requires us to react to attacks against Philippine territory, islands or ‘on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.’ As disputed areas, the Spratlys and the Reed Bank can be defined as territory to which the treaty would not apply. However, the broader reference to forces, vessels or aircraft ‘in the Pacific,’ could be interpreted to cover Philippine units attacked in either the Spratlys or the Reed Bank. We have consistently declined to take a position on any of the claims to the Spratlys and the Reed Bank.

“Essentially, there are three responses we can give to Marcos on this issue: an affirmative one clearly extending our commitment to cover Philippine units attacked in the Reed Bank; a negative one definitely excluding the area from our defense commitment; or an ambiguous one restating our overall defense commitment to the Philippines but leaving unanswered whether we would respond to all attacks on Philippine units in the area.

“A clearly negative response to this issue may at the very least be expected to complicate gravely our current task of renegotiating the bases agreement. It could well lead to tighter restrictions on the use of our bases, e.g., for support of activities in the Indian Ocean.

“On the other hand, any strongly affirmative response to Marcos will bear at least equal risks. It would increase the possibility of tensions with China and Vietnam. Congress and the public would probably see such a position as an unnecessary expansion of our defense commitment.

“Finally, a forthcoming response might encourage Marcos to pursue his claims to the Spratlys more actively, and to use military force to protect such claims.

“State and Defense recommend that, as an opening move, you authorize our making an ambiguous reply. In it we would state that we would consider Philippine units operating in the Reed Bank as covered by our defense treaty ‘as long as their presence is consistent with the provisions of the Mutual Defense Treaty, particularly Article I regarding peaceful settlement of disputes and refraining from the threat or use of force.’

“Such a response would: leave us the flexibility necessary to tailor our responses to attacks upon Philippine craft; neither expand nor contract our current treaty obligations; and allow us to avoid the significant risks that both of the other options present.” (End of memorandum extract)

So, how did Marcos interpret the US reply? There is no record of his response. However, oil drilling activities in the Reed Bank stopped soon after, although the explanation was that no oil and gas of commercial quantities had been found.

It would be only 35 years later, in 2011 under President Aquino 3rd’s watch that the Philippines authorized oil exploration in the Reed Bank — which triggered that government’s quarrelsome stance towards China.

So, what does the US answer mean? The US “will consider” if it is China that first uses force. If it is the Philippines that first fires at a Chinese vessel, it’s on its own.

Most analysts think China won’t back down in a military conflict over its claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese Communist Party will lose its legitimacy if it backs down on a sovereignty issue, which has become — because of its “century of humiliation” by Western powers — a matter of high priority for China.

Locsin is being naïve when he said: “If something happens that is beyond incursion but is in fact an attack on, say, a Filipino naval vessel … [that] means then I call up Washington DC.”

Scarborough Shoal
Those guidelines in fact made President Barack Obama refuse Aquino and del Rosario’s pleas for US naval support in the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012. It was Aquino who sent a warship to the area to help the Coast Guard arrest Chinese fishermen allegedly illegally fishing endangered species there. It was “a threat of force” Aquino’s warship made against civilian Chinese, violating Article I of the MDT, automatically invalidating it.

What a stupid president. His boo-boo led to the loss of Scarborough Shoal and to the colossal nonsense that was the arbitration suit.

Note: The salient three articles in the MDT are as follows:

“Article I. The parties undertake as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relation from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

“Article IV. 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.

“Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

“Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

“Article V. For purposes of Article IV, 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.”

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