CHINA, not the United States, has reclaimed and built controversial structures on Scarborough Shoal and other disputed areas in the West Philippine/South China Sea, despite stern objections from the Philippines. Now, instead of raising the issue with China, President Rodrigo Duterte has asked the US government to explain why it failed to prevent the Chinese from doing this. It is a move out of left field, which must have caught Mr. Sung Kim, the new US ambassador to the Philippines, completely by surprise. But DU30’s point should not be missed.
The US is not a party to the maritime and territorial dispute. It is not even a party to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which the Philippines and its allies would like to see the dispute settled. The US has no legal personality to intervene, even under our treaty arrangements. Under the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, “an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its peace and safety” and it would “act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” But the MDT may be invoked only in an armed attack on the Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft within the country’s metropolitan territory in the Pacific.
What does “metropolitan territory” mean? In a letter to Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo on January 6, 1979, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance defines the term to mean “all of the land areas and all adjacent waters subject to the sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines, in accordance with international law, lying within the area delineated by Spain and the United States in the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, and in the Treaty of Wasington concluded by the United States and Great Britain on January 2, 1930.” This does not include any of the disputed areas in the West Philippine/South China Sea. Tillerson, therefore, tended to overspeak when he warned China against reclaiming any of the disputed islands in the Spratlys.
Last July, when the Philippines won its arbitration case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the US was among those who welcomed the award. But China refused to recognize the proceedings, and DU30 decided not to invoke the ruling in favor of his government, and decided to conduct bilateral talks with China instead. He declared separating economically and militarily from the US, and aligning himself with China and Russia “against the world.” This visibly disappointed the US, and relations between Manila and Washington began to chill until President Donald Trump, whom DU30 welcomed as a soul mate, came into office. Upon his nomination as US Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson said he would not allow China to construct any structures on any of the disputed islands, nor to have access to them.
Is Tillerson softening on China? China’s response to this was prompt. This would mean war, said a Chinese editorial comment, and nothing more was heard from the State. More conciliatory words came from the Pentagon chief. Tillerson has since softened his stance; he described the objective and results of his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing as “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” A summit meeting between President Trump and Xi in Florida is being arranged along the same lines. Both sides are hoping for the best. DU30’s statement seems to be out of sync with the latest developments, but DU30 has a point in suggesting (which is how I understand his statement) that the days of gunboat diplomacy are over, if only because there are now several gunboats in the lake.