When a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat this month at the contested Reed Bank in the South China Sea, many in Manila wondered if the United States would finally intervene against Beijing’s maritime aggression.

The collision sparked new anti-China protests in the Philippine capital and reignited a debate over the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which requires the long-time strategic partners to come to each other’s defense in the case of an attack on their sovereign territories, assets or personnel.

Prominent Filipinos are now calling on President Rodrigo Duterte to activate the treaty to counter China’s rising threats to sovereign Philippine territory in the South China Sea, exemplified by Beijing’s recent militia swarming of Thitu island to block strategic upgrades of its facilities.

The calls come as US President Donald Trump’s administration has stepped up strategic assurances to its oldest regional ally, with Washington stating for the first time its willingness to intervene militarily against Chinese maritime militia forces in defense of Philippine positions in the South China Sea.

“China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten your sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the US,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a late February visit to Manila.

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels will trigger mutual defense obligations,” Pompeo said, removing previous ambiguity on the geographic scope of its commitment to the Philippines under the MDT.

Philippine and US soldiers in a joint amphibious attack exercise, October 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Manila and Washington are expected to begin next month a formal review of the MDT, a process that could either bolster or diminish the strategic alliance pending on the outcome of the deliberations.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for a treaty review last December in sight of rising Chinese aggression and America’s past failure to respond under the MDT, including most notably during China’s 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, a feature that falls in Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Lorenzana recently told this correspondent that a revision of the treaty’s actual text is not on the table. Instead, the Philippine defense chief says he seeks a revision of the “guidelines” that govern the bilateral alliance’s posture and operations.

One potential area for change, Lorenzana says, is a firmer US commitment to assist the Philippines against Chinese militia forces that have increasingly menaced Filipino vessels in maritime areas where it stakes sovereign claim.

It’s not clear yet if the Reed Bank incident was planned at a high level in Beijing and whether it came in response to reinvigorated Philippine-US defense ties, witnessed in recent bilateral sea exercises that simulated retaking an occupied island and the recent sale of US surveillance drones to improve Manila’s monitoring of the sea.

The Philippine Navy also announced this month that Duterte has approved its plans to purchase two new corvettes and eight missile-armed fast attack vessels that will allow for strikes on targets as far as 25 kilometers away.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures during a Reuters interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTX30A9V
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. Photo: AFP

The announcement came as the Navy inaugurated two new anti-submarine warfare helicopters, which are clearly aimed at countering China’s growing submarine presence in nearby waters.

Philippine sources suspect that the Chinese vessel involved in the June 9 ramming incident was part of its burgeoning and increasingly aggressive maritime militia forces, which have been unleashed on fishing vessels from rival claimant states across the contested sea.

China’s fishermen-cum-militia forces are known to receive fuel subsidy, basic para-military training as well as electronic communications equipment from Chinese authorities.

They also enjoy support from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its coast guard forces, which often intervene against regional law enforcement agencies seeking to apprehend Chinese fishermen and militia forces that enter their claimed waters.

The strategic ambiguity of China’s militia forces has recently come under tougher scrutiny in Washington. Last November, the Pentagon announced that it will begin to treat and deal with Chinese militia forces as an explicit extension of the PLAN.

That means the US Navy will use the same rules of engagement, including possible armed response, against China’s fishermen-cum-militia forces if they are perceived as threatening US interests and assets in the South China Sea.

Whether that posture will now be extended to Philippine interests and assets under the MDT is not altogether clear, though signs are pointing in that direction.

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Following the Reed Bank ship-sinking incident, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim stated that the MDT could apply even to Chinese militia forces.

“Any armed attack, I would think that would include government-sanctioned militias,” the American representative said on June 14, just days after the collision between a suspected Chinese militia vessel and a Filipino fishing boat.

“We are totally committed to the obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty and we will live up to those obligations. I have confidence that our defense leaders in Washington and Manila understand what is at stake and that when we encounter situations that will require our commitment to come to reality, I think we will deliver,” he said.

The Duterte administration has so far opted to de-escalate tensions by exploring joint investigations of the incident, which ironically occurred on Philippine-China Friendship Day (June 9), as well as new maritime agreements aimed at preventing similar collisions.

Filipino defense officials and high-ranking military personnel initially accused the Chinese vessel of intentionally ramming the Philippine vessel, a collision which left 22 Filipino crewmen who rescued by a Vietnamese boat to drown on high seas.

Duterte has since contradicted his own defense officials by downplaying the incident as a “little maritime accident” which should not affect warm bilateral relations with China. His presidential palace has suggested invoking the MDT would be “reckless and premature.”

US Ambassador to the Philippine Sung Kim and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

That’s not how many of Duterte’s political allies and rivals see the situation, with rising calls to move away from his government’s China-leaning policies.

Prominent Filipino senator and former national police chief Panfilo Lacson went so far as to accuse Duterte of “surrender” to China instead of properly assessing the country’s strategic options.

“He forgot to explore all resources available before exercising his last option of surrender. The MDT is one yet untapped weapon,” Lacson wrote in a tweet. “I am not suggesting World War III, but at least it can make China feel the balance of power in the [South China Sea].”