By Jon Dougherty
On his way back from Hanoi after attending President Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first landed in the Philippines, where he assured the government there the U.S. would honor its mutual defense treaty with Manila should China start trouble.
In particular, Pompeo said that the United States was committed to freedom and security throughout the Indo-Pacific region, as well as ensuring the South China Sea remained open to all kinds of navigation and that “China does not pose a threat” of closing the disputed sea lanes.
To the Filipino government, Pompeo pledged that American forces would intervene if China attacked Manila’s forces on land, in the air, or on the high seas.
Pompeo’s comments were an effort to specifically address Philippine concerns over some vagueness of the allies’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which Manila wants to re-examine.
“I think the whole world understands that the Trump administration has made a true commitment to making sure that these seas remain open for the security of the countries in the region and the world, open to commercial transit,” Pompeo told a news conference in Manila.
He said the U.S. will support the Philippines, a long-time ally, and other countries in the region “so that these incredibly vital economic sea lanes are open and China does not pose a threat to closing them down.”
“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 U.S.,” he added.
Pompeo’s reassurance comes ahead of a planned trade summit between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping and could be seen as making it clear to Beijing that strong-arming its neighbors — and the U.S. — isn’t in China’s best interests, militarily or economically.
Chinese foreign ministry officials reacted predictably, blaming Washington for stirring up trouble and insinuating, as usual, that the U.S. should have no say in what happens in Asia.
“If countries outside the region, such as the United States, really keep in mind the peace and well-being of the regional people, they should not stir up troubles in the region,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, adding that countries in the region are committed to peace and freedom of navigation.
At issue is China’s construction of islands in the middle of the South China Sea where other countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei all have overlapping claims. China has used its economic muscle and growing military might to impose its will on the South China Sea, nearly all of which Beijing claims.
Philippine officials reacted favorably to Pompeo’s statement. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in the news conference with Pompeo that, given his comments and earlier statements by President Trump and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte that, “We have your back.”
Since completing its manmade islands, China has steadily fortified them with air defense systems and anti-ship missiles and radar. Fighters and bombers have also landed on some of them.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana will meet Pentagon officials in Manila this month for initial talks on Manila’s proposal to review the 1951 defense treaty, which calls on the allies to come to each other’s defense against an external attack.
The two sides will schedule formal talks after that.
For his part, Duterte — who took office in June 2016 — has alternately praised and criticized the U.S. At times, he has also reached out to China and sought Chinese investment in his country. He’s also made diplomatic overtures to Russia.
With that in mind, it’s not clear what a future mutual defense agreement will look like. However, it seems plain the Trump administration believes that strengthening it is in everyone’s interest as the Chinese are only going to get stronger and bolder as time goes on.
For decades the U.S. Navy leased Subic Bay from the Philippine government, but the agreement ended in the early 1990s. However, Washington has become interested in the base again and U.S. Navy has visited in recent months after Chinese firms expressed interest in acquiring the rights to it.
At its height, Subic Bay was a major U.S. naval base in the Indo-Pacific region.
- Follow Jon Dougherty on Twitter at @JonDougherty10
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