THE real reason our civilian and military officialdom are hostile toward China regarding our disputes with it in the South China Sea is their dubious faith that under the 1952 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US, the powerful American military will come to our aid in case the Chinese attack us.
Indeed, the head of the ADR Stratbase propaganda outfit in a recent piece praised the MDT to the high heavens. Referring to the US and its MDT, he wrote: “With friends like these, the Philippines can confidently navigate these challenges that threaten to break the peaceful coexistence needed to bolster progress and prosperity.” What he’s saying: No need to worry over our disputes with China; the US has our back.
The oft-quoted provision of the treaty reads: “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.”
But that treaty was entered into 71 years ago, when the US was the unchallenged hegemon capable of crushing any other nation. Both the USSR and China at the time were still economically and militarily weak nations. While Russia detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1949 and China in 1964, they didn’t have efficient delivery systems for these. China would have a blue-water navy only starting in the 1980s, which made it powerless before that to enforce its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
The world has changed since. China has become an economic and military power. Russia, China’s ally, has 5,889 nuclear warheads, more than the US’ 5,224. China has 410 such weapons of mass destruction.
It is almost certain that if the US comes to aid us, say, when a Chinese coast guard attacks our coast guard, the two superpowers will be on a slippery road to total nuclear war if the US decides to comply with the MDT.
This is especially so since China will see the US intervention as an invasion of its territory since the Americans have totally no claim in the South China Sea. Even if China is an authoritarian state, the Communist Party of China’s legitimacy would vanish if it did not battle the Americans in what the Chinese are convinced is their backyard.
Several American think tanks have undertaken sophisticated war games if a war were to break out between the two superpowers when China attempts to invade Taiwan. If there’s one lesson from these war games, according to a US congressman who observed the simulations, “it’s that a war with China would be catastrophic for America and all of humanity.” Heed his words: “We must do everything in our power to prevent a conflict.”
How can the US wiggle out of its MDT commitment to militarily aid us? Easy.
Imagine a scenario in which the Chinese finally decide to tow away the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal (which then-President Estrada promised to do). Our courageous coast guard, followed by the navy, blocks the Chinese vessels. Water cannons fail to drive them away, so the Chinese ram them, and when this fails, they fire artillery shells to sink them.
Will the US immediately come to our aid? Certainly not. The US will hem and haw to distance itself from the conflict, knowing the terrible consequences of war with China.
First, it will invoke the MDT’s Article V: “For the purpose 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.” Ayungin Shoal is not Philippine metropolitan territory nor is it under its jurisdiction. Ayungin Shoal — including all of the features in Spratlys — are claimed not only by China but also by Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia.
Second, the US will play the role of peacemaker, calling on “both parties” to refrain from further military action. China will appear magnanimous and announce that it will hold its fire — while it surrounds Ayungin Shoal with a fleet consisting not just of its coast guard and navy vessels but also of its sea-borne militia of small fishing boats. The US will invoke the treaty’s Article IV, which calls on the UN Security Council to intervene. The US, China and Russia, of course, are Security Council permanent members with veto power.
And third, the Americans will claim that their constitution requires Congressional approval for their president to order their military to go to war — which defending the Philippines against the Chinese entails. For instance, the US Congress gave President Bush its “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq,” with about 30 percent of the Congress disagreeing.
But Iraq wasn’t a nuclear power, and its economy was small and separated from the US. Will the US Congress agree to a war against China, whose economy is so closely linked to the US, over some distant disputed area?
This process will take weeks, with our coast guard and navy reduced to mourning their dead and appealing to global public opinion to intervene. While all this is going on, China consolidates its hold on Ayungin Shoal. It is likely to stop all trade and tourism with the Philippines. Since China is our biggest trading partner, our economy will sink, together with the BRP Sierra Madre.
The above narrative isn’t speculative. A version of it occurred in 2012 in the Scarborough Shoal standoff, in which Chinese and Filipino vessels refused to leave the area for six weeks. President Aquino 3rd, with his defense and foreign secretaries, trooped to Washington, D.C. to beg President Obama to order US warships to escort our vessels in the area. Obama rejected the Philippine plea. Instead, one of his ranking diplomats, Kurt Campbell, fooled our then ambassador to the US and our foreign secretary, telling them that the Chinese had agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal.
Our vessels did withdraw. The Chinese didn’t, since there was no such agreement. Obama’s officials, though, took advantage of the situation and told our officials, “We can’t help since we are too far from the Spratlys in case war breaks out. It would be a good idea if you let us use your bases where we can pre-position our troops and supplies, so that we can be confident to help you.” Thus in a year’s time Aquino 3rd agreed to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US, allowing five of our camps — increased to nine by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — for the US military to use.
We have to deal with China without the illusion that the US has our back. It doesn’t. That’s what Vietnam has been doing.
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