Next week, the U.S. and the Philippines will open exploratory talks on salvaging their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. This comes after a month of renewed drama that has come to typify the hot-and-cold relationship between the U.S. and its oldest security treaty ally in Asia. In late December, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for a comprehensive review of the treaty for updating. A week later, he announced that Manila had begun studying the possibility that the pact could be scrapped altogether.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to withdraw from the treaty repeatedly since his election in 2016. Duterte says a lot of things, often changes his mind before the sun has set over Manila Bay, and is mostly incapable of fundamentally restructuring Philippine foreign policy to his personal tastes, anyway. But this particular warning came from Lorenzana – an advocate for robust U.S.-Philippine ties, a former attache to the Pentagon, and a Philippine defense establishment check on Duterte – suggesting that the anxieties Manila has about U.S. security commitments are born not from the vagaries of Duterte but from a more immutable set of circumstances: The U.S. and the Philippines face a common threat in China but have starkly divergent views on how to manage it.

Arguments Ring Hollow

The main problem with the treaty, according to Lorenzana, is that the U.S. won’t confirm that it includes Philippine holdings in disputed parts of the South China Sea. The treaty says the U.S. is obligated to respond to “an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” But the text leaves some room for interpretation on what would actually trigger the treaty – and what “acting to meet common dangers” in such an event actually means in practice. This debate isn’t academic; this week, for example, imagery published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed as many as 90 Chinese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels near Pag-asa Island, the Philippines’ largest holding in the Spratlys, ostensibly in response to Manila’s plans to resume work on a beaching ramp on the island.

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For Washington, the ambiguity is at least partly deliberate. When the pact was signed in 1951, it argues, the Philippines did not yet control the nine features in the hotly contested Spratly archipelago that it does today. The U.S. is officially neutral on the territorial dispute, which began in earnest in the late 1980s, emphasizing instead that such matters should be resolved in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on a case brought by Manila invalidated Beijing’s claims that its Spratly holdings were entitled to territorial seas, but it did not rule on the rightful ownership of any of the reclaimed islands. So if the U.S. were to formally include the South China Sea in the treaty, it would ostensibly abandon a policy it applies in disputed hot spots around the world – one that serves the broader U.S. interest of bolstering a “rules-based” international order.

But this argument rings hollow to Manila for several reasons. For one, in 2015, the Obama administration agreed to updated guidelines in its Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan that, in no uncertain terms, included the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan in the East China Sea. Washington can point to minor differences in the language of the two treaties to defend its position, but it’s the kind of legalistic rationale you invoke only if you’re looking to keep a pact weak. (The U.S. hasn’t always been so circumspect. The Clinton administration twice confirmed that the treaty covered the South China Sea, even though the Philippine Senate voted to boot the U.S. Navy from its strategically invaluable base at Subic Bay in 1991.)

Perhaps most telling, the legal case for covering the Scarborough Shoal, just 130 miles (210 kilometers) from Luzon, is more straightforward. The U.S. formally took administrative control of the resource-rich reef from Spain in 1900 following its victory in the Spanish-American War, and the Philippines acquired formal control upon gaining independence in 1946. The Philippines established a U.S. naval operating area covering a 20-mile radius around Scarborough Shoal in the 1960s, and the two allies used the reef as bombing range into the early 1980s.

Yet, when Chinese forces seized the shoal in 2012, the U.S. declined to forcefully intervene. The Obama administration reportedly warned China in 2016 that it would consider an attempt to turn Scarborough Shoal into yet another artificial island a red line. But neither the Obama nor the Trump administration has moved to stop China from exercising effective control over the surrounding waters. Nor has the U.S. expressed any willingness to defend Manila’s right to drill for oil in waters the U.N. tribunal determined were Philippine. From Manila’s viewpoint, in other words, the U.S. is going out of its way to keep the Philippines at arms’ length.

Words on Paper

Unfair as it may appear, the U.S. has strategic reasons to keep its options open. It doesn’t want to get dragged into a war with China, at least not one that wasn’t started on its terms, and so it doesn’t want to give the Philippines reason to think the U.S. will automatically have its back if it picks a fight it can’t win on its own. The U.S. is basically content with the status quo in the South China Sea. It doesn’t really need to escalate matters there to contain China on other fronts. So long as the Chinese navy can’t challenge the U.S. Navy directly, the U.S. is happy to cripple China by choking its maritime traffic along the first island chain and around the Strait of Malacca.

The problem for the U.S. is that this strategy gives the Philippines little choice but to do whatever it deems necessary to remain friendly with China. Over the past two years, this has meant limiting the scale of cooperation with the U.S., presumably at Beijing’s behest, while allowing China to gradually expand its commercial and political influence in the country in ways that could come back to haunt the U.S.

For example, Manila has dramatically slowed implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a 2014 deal providing U.S. forces with rotational access to five Philippine bases. Construction on U.S. facilities was delayed by more than two years before finally breaking ground earlier this month. Two bases, including the one closest to the Spratlys, may now be excluded, and any hope that the deal would expand in scope, which Duterte’s predecessor’s administration assumed was inevitable, has been quashed.

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Meanwhile, Chinese firms are making plays for assets at what were once the U.S.’ two most important bases in Luzon – Clark airfield and Subic Bay naval base. There’s no guarantee that commercial ownership will mean China will ever be able to get these assets for military purposes. We’re skeptical of the strategic utility of so-called Chinese “debt traps” in general. But the potential threat is real enough that those concerned about China across the region are moving to counter or block outright Chinese acquisitions of strategically valuable infrastructure abroad. (Lorenzana, for example, is calling for the government to take over the shipyard at Subic Bay to keep it out of Chinese hands.) Perhaps just as important, in November, Manila approved entry to the Philippine market of a wireless consortium led by China Telecom, which is likely to aid Chinese efforts to export fifth-generation wireless technologies to strategically important states, the military implications for which are potentially game-changing.

Ultimately, to blow a hole in the U.S. containment line, China needs one of the countries along the first island chain to flip fully into its camp. Weak as it is, the Philippines may be China’s best bet, even if it’s not an especially good bet. Even if Manila scrapped the Mutual Defense Treaty outright, it wouldn’t automatically bring the U.S.-Philippine partnership to an end. In practice, the U.S. hasn’t been cooperating with the Philippines substantially more than it has been with other regional allies with which it has no formal treaty. And in any case, Washington and Manila struck a more detailed and arguably more important visiting forces agreement in 1999 that has facilitated the bulk of recent cooperation, including U.S. assistance in the Philippines’ fight against jihadist militants in Mindanao. (On the other hand, the EDCA would likely need to be renegotiated if the Mutual Defense Treaty is snuffed out. This would be a substantive setback to bilateral cooperation.)

The Duterte administration’s outreach to Beijing is less an expression of preference for China over the U.S. than one of a desire to keep its options open. Nearly every strategically located state on China’s periphery is keen to play the U.S. and China off each other, and to balance ties with any number of outside powers, to their advantage. The Philippines has been eagerly deepening military cooperation with U.S. allies like Japan, Australia and South Korea accordingly.

Still, countries as weak as the Philippines don’t get to dictate terms, whether to friends or to foes, and an “omnidirectional” foreign policy is no substitute for using the U.S. to deter the Chinese. Treaties are only as relevant as the strategic logic underpinning them, but they can be important for facilitating things like military interoperability, intel-sharing and basing agreements – the flesh and bones of a balance of power strategy. A Chinese alliance with Manila, then, may never be in the cards. But a divided, uncertain Philippines – one vulnerable to influence and fruitlessly trying to keep its own options open – is the next best thing.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.