US forces are obliged to help defend Philippine troops, ships or aircraft under a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty if they come under attack in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Philippine officials said, citing past US assurances. The potentially oil and gas-rich Spratly Islands have long been regarded as one of Asia’s possible flash points for conflict. China, the Philippines and Vietnam have been trading barbs and diplomatic protests recently over overlapping territorial claims to the islands, reigniting tensions. Complicating the issue is the role the US could play in resolving the disputes. A Mutual Defense Treaty signed by US and Philippine officials on Aug. 30, 1951, calls on each country to help defend the other against an external attack by an aggressor in their territories or in the Pacific region.
Amid renewed tensions in the Spratlys, questions have emerged whether the treaty would apply if ill-equipped Philippine forces come under attack in the islands, all of which are claimed by China. Parts also are claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a policy paper that the treaty requires Washington to help defend Philippine forces if they come under attack in the Spratly Islands, citing US diplomatic dispatches that defined the Pacific region under the treaty as including the South China Sea. The South China Sea was not specifically mentioned in the pact. A copy of the policy paper was seen on Wednesday.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also said in a recent interview that US officials have made clear that Washington would respond should Philippine forces come under attack in the South China Sea. Del Rosario said by telephone from Washington that he would discuss the Spratly disputes, along with issues related to the 1951 defense treaty and other regional security concerns with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when they met yesterday. The US embassy in Manila declined to discuss details of when the pact would apply.
“As a strategic ally, the United States honors our Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines,” said Alan Holst, acting public affairs officer at the embassy. “We will not engage in discussion of hypothetical scenarios.” The defense treaty, which came into force in 1952, defined an attack as an armed assault on “the metropolitan territory of the parties” or their “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” While the US has a policy of not interfering in territorial disputes, the Philippine paper said: “It may be construed that any attack on our vessels, armed forces or aircraft in the Spratlys would make the treaty applicable and accordingly obligate the US to act to meet the common dangers.”
China has urged the US to stay out of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, saying they should be resolved through bilateral negotiations. On Wednesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai warned that Washington risks getting drawn into a conflict should tensions in the region escalate further. Washington views the sea lanes in the area as strategically important.