No categorical commitment from US to defend PH in sea row
SINGAPORE—US Defense Secretary James Mattis gave no categorical commitment on whether the Philippine-occupied features in the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is covered by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
While the US official said that they stand by their treaty allies, he remained conservative on whether the treaty would apply in case an armed confrontation breaks out in the disputed waters.
“We stand by our treaty allies but this is a discussion between the current administrations in Manila and in Washington. It’s not one that can be answered as simply as your question would indicate,” he said in a Q and A after delivering his remarks on Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, one of the world’s biggest security forums.
The 1951 agreement signed by the Philippines and United States stipulates that both will come to each other’s defense against an armed attack.
“When we have discussions on these matters, the reason why public figures do not want to give specific answers is that these are complex issues…To simply turn it into a military and non-military response is short-changing the issue,” Mattis said.
“This is what diplomacy is all about, taking contrary perspectives and finding common ground,” he said.
Mattis’ response was in contrast to the solid commitment of the US to defend Japan in case of an armed attack.
In 2017, he said that the Article 5 of US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security would cover the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Japan and China have disputes over the East China Sea. It is administered by Japan, but China also claims it.
The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea. But China claims most of the waters with their so-called nine-dash line, and has asserted their claims by building artificial islands with military capabilities.
It was not the first time that US officials were ambiguous on the extent of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Presidents Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton also gave no certain assurances in the past.
Mattis, in his remarks at the security forum, took a swipe at China’s increasing militarization in the South China Sea, with the deployment of missiles, communication jammers and the recent landing of bombers in its controlled islands.
“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to the military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” he said.
The official also warned of “larger consequences” if it continues its militarization of the disputed seas. Mattis said the recent move to disinvite China to the Rim of the Pacific exercises, the world’s largest exercises hosted by the US, was only an “initial response” to China’s militarization of the islands.
“I believe that there are much more larger consequences in the future when nations lose rapport of their neighbors,” he said.
“China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes. It calls into question China’s broader goals,” he added.
But Mattis said the US will continue to pursue a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China when possible.
“We are prepared and will support China’s choices if they promote long term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region,” he said. /jpv
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