US, Philippines assessing defense treaty, China wary

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — U.S. and Philippine military officials have held initial talks to assess the future of their countries’ 70-year Mutual Defense Treaty, including revising it in a possible move that has made China wary, the Philippine defense chief said Thursday.

The 1951 treaty commits the United States and the Philippines to come to the aid of the other in case of an attack. American officials have repeatedly assured their Philippine counterparts that they would honor their treaty obligations if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under attack in the disputed South China Sea, including by China.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the treaty could be abrogated, replaced or revised after many decades. The treaty alliance is America’s oldest in Asia.

“Initial discussions have been made between officials of both militaries to achieve some consensus on how to move forward,” Lorenzana said in videotaped remarks at an online forum that discussed issues surrounding the treaty.

“While the U.S. welcomes the idea of revisiting the MDT, an outside party does not. When I first broached the idea of revisiting the MDT, the former Chinese ambassador came to me and said, `Please do not touch the MDT, leave it as it is,’” Lorenzana said, without elaborating.

A Philippine diplomat has told The Associated Press that China may be concerned Philippine and U.S. officials might insert provisions that could threaten Beijing’s security interests if the treaty were amended. They could recognize, for example, a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak in public.

China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have been locked in a tense standoff over territorial disputes in the busy waterway. There are fears that the long-simmering disputes could spark a war that could ruin the bustling economies in Asia and beyond.

Lorenzana said there have been suggestions to revise the treaty to address current regional security concerns, including China’s use of civilian militias instead of military forces to seize territories in the disputed waters to avoid a military dispute that can give the U.S. and the Philippines a reason to activate their treaty.

Chinese Embassy officials did not immediately react to Lorenzana’s remarks. China has warned the U.S. not to intervene in what it says is a purely Asian dispute that governments in the region are trying to resolve peacefully through negotiations.

Washington lays no claims in the disputed waters but has declared that the peaceful resolution of the disputes, along with freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested waterway, were in its national interest.