Mutual Defense in the Pacific Theater
Elton F. Duncan IV
There are many threats to peace in the Pacific, whether in the form of world powers aggressively expanding their stakes to natural resources in the South China Sea or deeply-rooted Islamic extremists in the Philippines building relations with ISIL. The U.S. has a long and well established history with the region following the conclusion of the Second World War and has maintained economic and political ties with most nations in the region. Although the U.S. is heavily invested in the region, stability in the Pacific will continue to be a secondary priority to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. The U.S. continues to pursue regional stability through white-collar diplomacy but the lack of a hardline stance ensures the region will continue down a path to instability. If the U.S. does not give the proper attention to these growing threats and commit to deterrence in the Pacific, our allies will call on us once violence has erupted to fulfill our obligations outlined in Mutual Defense Treaties.
The increased violence and activity of ISIL in the Middle East remains the focal point of the international community. Recent terror attacks in Paris and growing recruitment globally have solidified the legitimacy of an ISIL threat well worthy of multinational collaboration. As the U.S. and the international community look towards the Middle East, we must not allow a blind-spot to form in the Pacific. There are many threats to peace in the Pacific whether in the form of China aggressively expanding their stakes to natural resources in the South China Sea or deeply rooted Islamic extremists in the Philippines building relations with ISIL[i]. If we do not give the proper attention to these growing threats now, the Philippine government will call on us once violence has erupted to fulfill our obligations outlined in the Mutual Defense Treaty.
The largest and most well documented external threat to peace in the Pacific is the ongoing territorial disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. The world power has shown little restraint or diplomacy as it continues to overstep much smaller nations such as the Philippines and Malaysia in the pursuit of expanding its access to crude oil, natural gas, and shipping lanes. This growing conflict centers around the Spratly Islands, a small archipelago to the West of the Philippines, most of which is submerged during high tide. China continues to build raised structures and oil platforms on these islands as well as attempting to blockade logistical supplies from reaching nearby Philippine held islands[ii]. This blatant infringement of sovereignty in the South China Sea has garnered increasing multinational attention but we have yet to see firm boundaries or consequences instituted. The most recent attempt to quell the dispute was led by Senator John Kerry in the 23 July 2012 Simple Resolution 524 which stated, “[The] Government of the People’s Republic of China have affirmed that the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability in the region and have agreed to work towards the attainment of a code of conduct…The People’s Republic of China have committed to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and stability, including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, and other features and to handle their difference in a constructive manner.”[iii] Although well intentioned, a Simple Resolution, which does require the approval of Congress for implementation, holds little weight on the international stage. A recent follow-up to S. Res. 524 stated, China’s recent actions were “contrary to agreed upon principles with regard to resolving disputes and impede a peaceful resolution” to the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.[iv]
The second threat to peace is a cancer that grows from within the jungles of Mindanao and other small islands in the southern Philippines, an area known to offer the ideal conditions for an insurgency[v]. While Islamic extremism and the violence that follows it is nothing new to the southern Philippines, failed attempts at peace agreements and the emergence of ISIL alliances in the region will soon redefine the threat in Mindanao. In March of 2015, the Philippine government signed a peace treaty with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) “promising autonomy in the south and ending a 45-year conflict that killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million”[vi]. Although both government and MILF sanctioned, this peace treaty meant little to other jihadists such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) who continue to fight the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the region. Recent reports have stated that “The jihadist groups Abu Sayyaf Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and a group calling itself Ansar al Khilafah in the Philippines have all either pledged allegiance or expressed support for the Islamic State in the past… Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Philippines have released a short video showing a training camp somewhere in the Southeast Asian country [Philippines]”[vii]. Although it does not receive the same media coverage and exposure as the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, violence in the southern Philippines continues to grow at an alarming rate. Recent events include the kidnapping of four foreign tourists who have appeared in ransom videos with the iconic ISIL flag proudly displayed in the background[viii] as well as deadly clash between the AFP and jihadists in Mindanao as recent as December 2016[ix].
The U.S. is not ignorant to these threats and has maintained close ties with the Philippine government since the signing of a Mutual Defense Treaty on 13 August 1951. The treaty states that both the U.S. and the Philippines share a “common determination to defend themselves against external armed attacks, so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the Pacific Area”[x]. More specifically, Article III of the treaty outlines the responsibilities of either nation to offer military assistance to the other “whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific”[xi]. Although intentionally worded to represent a shared responsibility between the U.S. and the Philippine governments, the reality is that the AFP is almost entirely trained and equipped by the U.S. military and does not possess the organic logistical network to support significant sustained operations abroad in support of the U.S. The U.S. interest in the Philippines is strategic in nature and is intended to serve as a facet of extended deterrence in the Pacific.
The Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 is not the stand alone agreement unifying the U.S. and Philippine governments and has been followed recently by a small contingent of executive agreements and resolutions. The Visiting Forces Agreement signed on 1 June 1999 outlines the conduct and expectations of U.S. forces temporarily stationed in the Philippines. On 8 November 2007 the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement was signed furthering the bilateral support of both nations. Although these agreements have limited international implications, they continued to solidify U.S. and Philippine relations. It was not until 2012 that U.S. and Philippine relations began to focus externally. As previously stated , S. Resolution 524, signed on 23 July 2012 outlined expectations for conduct of nations in the South China Sea, specifically referencing China’s rapid buildup of structures on uninhabited islands in the region. Two years later, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed on 28 April 2014 and stated that the U.S. and Philippine governments “share an understanding for the United States not to establish a permanent military presence or base in the territory of the Philippines” and that “the Parties separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack and within the context of the Visiting Forces Agreement”[xii]. Throughout the relationship, both nations have maintained that the U.S. will only keep a “rotational presence” in the Philippines as to not infringe upon the sovereignty of the Philippines.
The question raised is whether the current rotational presence of U.S. troops and bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Philippine governments will suffice to prevent an event from occurring that would invoke U.S. obligations to respond to an armed attack outlined in the Mutual Defense Treaty. Article V of the Mutual Defense Treaty states “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 territory under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific”[xiii]. Recently, prior to his assignment as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford was asked in a pre-congressional hearing interview about the Asia-Pacific rebalancing efforts to which he responded, “We have moderated tensions in East and South China Sea maritime disputes and reinforced our position as the security partner of choice for most nations in the region. An added benefit of these strengthened ties is the commitment of military forces and assets of several countries to the anti-ISIL coalition…I will support the ongoing efforts to increase U.S. military presence in the region and invest in and deploy critical advanced capabilities”[xiv]. In the same interview he was later asked, “Do you believe we have the air and maritime lift required to support the distribution of Marines across North and Southeast Asia?”. He replied, “No. If confirmed [as the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff], I look forward to working with the Services and the U.S. Pacific Command to address this challenge.”[xv]
The Obama administration recently furthered their white-collar diplomacy approach towards the Pacific region by hosting a summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in California from 14 to 16 February of this year. The purpose of the summit was to build upon the Plan of Action to Implement the U.S. – ASEAN Strategic Partnership which was constructed in November of 2015 and outlined expectations for the nations through the year 2020. During his opening remarks, President Obama stated, “Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means"[xvi]. Critics described the summit as “a diverse and democratically-challenged 10-nation group,”[xvii] which produced vague outputs and accomplished little other than reaffirming the U.S. interest in the ASEAN partnership. It is too soon to tell if the summit was successful in providing a rudder steer to the Pacific realignment or if it will continue the pattern of international diplomacy that fails to change the status quo in the region.
The Pacific theater will remain an area of concern regardless of the party affiliation of the administration that will assume command in January next year. The importance of the region, both from economic and security perspectives cannot be overstated and must be addressed appropriately. A continued white-collar diplomatic strategy will not suffice to ensure stability in the region. The U.S. must commit to enforcing clearly defined expectations for regional order in the Pacific. This could be accomplished through an increased permanent military presence in the region and enforcing strict sanctions against nations that repeatedly violate international and maritime law. An increase in U.S. involvement oriented toward promoting theater security and deterring international hostilities may prevent a future obligation to commit forces once violence has erupted in the region.
[i] Chris Weiss, “Islamic State supporters show training camp in the Philippines,” The Long War Journal, 21 December 2015, available at http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/12/islamic-state-supporters-show-training-camp-in-the-philippines.php
[ii] Eril De Castro and Roli Ng, “Philippine ship dodges China blockade to reach South China Sea outpost,” Reuters, 30 March 2014, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-china-reef-idUSBREA2T02K20140330
[iv] Creative American Leadership Needed to Resolve South China Sea Disputes | NamViet News. (2012, September 21). Retrieved from https://namvietnews.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/creative-american-leadership-needed-to-resolve-south-china-sea-disputes/
[v] Michaels, J. (2011, March 31). Philippines a model for counterinsurgency - USATODAY.com. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2011-03-30-secretwar30_ST_N.htm
[vi] Mogato, M. (2015, December 30). U.S.-trained commandos in Philippines kill 10 militants: usinarmy| Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-militants-idUSKBN0UE07F20151231
[vii] Chris Weiss, “Islamic State supporters show training camp in the Philippines,” The Long War Journal, 21 December 2015, available at http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/12/islamic-state-supporters-show-training-camp-in-the-philippines.php
[viii] Gutierrez, J. (2014, October 18). Philippines: Abu Sayyaf back in the spotlight. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/10/philippines-abu-sayyaf-201410187641392234.html
[ix] Mogato, M. (2015, December 30). U.S.-trained commandos in Philippines kill 10 militants: usinarmy| Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-militants-idUSKBN0UE07F20151231
[x] Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library. (2008). Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines; August 30, 1951. Retrieved from avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/phil001.asp
[xi] Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library. (2008). Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines; August 30, 1951. Retrieved from avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/phil001.asp
[xii] Philippines-Indonesia Maritime Boundary Agreement: An Analysis. (2014, April 28). Retrieved from http://www.gov.ph/downloads/2014/04apr/20140428-EDCA.pdf
[xiii] Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library. (2008). Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines; August 30, 1951. Retrieved from avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/phil001.asp
[xiv] USNI News. (2015, July 9). Gen. Dunford's answers to Senate Advance Questions. Retrieved from http://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Dunford_07-09-15.pdf#viewer.action=download
[xv] USNI News. (2015, July 9). Gen. Dunford's answers to Senate Advance Questions. Retrieved from http://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Dunford_07-09-15.pdf#viewer.action=download
[xvi] Mason, J. (2016, February 16). Obama, Southeast Asia leaders eye China and trade at California summit| Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-asean-idUSKCN0VO0GO
[xvii] Pennington, M. (2016, February 16). Obama's Southeast Asia summit: a gathering of strongmen | The Japan Times. Retrieved from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/02/16/asia-pacific/obamas-southeast-asia-summit-gathering-strongmen/#.VthKcDZul7h