MANILA – The United States has clarified the scope of its defense treaty obligations to the Philippines, publishing new instructions that clearly allude to attacks in the South China Sea, including on its coast guard.
The six-page “bilateral defense guidelines” reached in Washington on Wednesday follow President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s continued desire to renegotiate the Mutual Defense Treaty with the former colonial ruler at a time of rising tension and maritime confrontation with China.
The rules are the first since the treaty’s signing in 1951, and they come after a year of diplomatic protests by the Philippines over what it terms China’s “aggressive” activities and threats against its coast guard.
According to the recommendations, the bilateral treaty commitments would be invoked if one was specifically attacked in the South China Sea, as well as if coast guard vessels were the target.
It was also modified to include references to modern types of warfare, such as “grey zone tactics,” which China is accused of employing to assert sovereignty claims. The recommendations made no special mention of China.
“Recognizing that threats may emerge in multiple domains – including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace – and take the form of asymmetric, hybrid, and irregular warfare and grey-zone tactics,” according to the Pentagon, “the guidelines chart a path forward to build interoperability in both conventional and non-conventional domains.”
The South China Sea, a critical waterway for global trade, has become a major flashpoint in China’s increasingly tense relationship with the United States.
The rules serve as a “warning” to China not to target the Philippine coast guard. Rommel Ong, a former vice commander of the Philippine navy and a professor at the Ateneo School of Government, made the statement.
The security standards, according to Julio Amador, chairman of the Foundation for the National Interest, a Manila-based think organization specializing on strategic and security matters. “It’s obvious that it will give China pause.”
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry stated that it is opposed to the use of bilateral military accords to intervene in the South China Sea, which “should not be a hunting ground for external forces.”
Marcos published the principles during a visit to Washington this week, which included talks with counterpart Joe Biden.
Marcos also met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who assured him that “we will always have your back, whether it’s in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region.”
Ties with the US have grown stronger under Marcos, who offered the US military access to additional of his country’s bases in February, causing China to accuse the deal of “stoking the fire” of regional hostility.