“Are you with us?” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once dared former U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg on the question of South China Sea. Survey after survey has shown that the vast majority of Filipinos see the United States as their most important international partner. This should come as no surprise, given America’s role as relatively benign former colonizer and a long-time source of traditional security and humanitarian assistance throughout the past century. Upon closer examination, however, it’s clear that Duterte’s pointed questions over the United States’ commitment to one of its oldest treaty allies resonates with large number of Filipinos.

In fact, an authoritative survey during the Philippine president’s first year in office showed that at least half of Filipinos were undecided (33 percent) or disagreed (17 percent) on whether defense relations with the United States have been “beneficial to the Philippines”. Interestingly, almost half of Filipinos (47 percent) supported Duterte’s move to explore security and defense relations with China and Russia rather than the United States. Other surveys have also shown a closing gap between the United States and China in favorability among Filipinos under the Trump presidency, while a growing number of Filipinos, from 43 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2017, prefer economic engagement rather than confrontation with China.

Thus, a major reason why Duterte has managed to get away with his constant berating of the United States is widespread public skepticism over America’s reliability as an ally, especially in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest statement marks a major departure from former U.S. administrations, which studiously equivocated on the precise extent of America’s commitment to the Philippines amid the festering maritime disputes.

The most consequential aspect of the Trump administration’s major South China Sea statement is arguably it’s de facto support of an ally’s (maritime, not territorial) claim against that of China as well as other rival claimants. This means the policy statement has major operational ramifications, namely in the prospect for U.S. armed intervention in contingencies involving a number of hotly-contested land features in the area. No wonder then, the Philippines’ Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who previously questioned the value of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), was among the first in the region to openly welcome the new announcement.

The Dynamic Duo

Pompeo’s statement couldn’t have been timelier. It has come at a crucial phase in the Philippines’ evolving relations with China. By all indications, Duterte’s famed honeymoon with the Asian powerhouse is coming to close, as both sides fail to make major concessions on outstanding issues.

For a start, China is yet to honor its promise of large-scale infrastructure investments in the Philippines. In his fifth year in office, the Filipino president is yet to brandish a single big-ticket project by China, which has effectively cancelled its much ballyhooed plan for a railway across Duterte’s home island of Mindanao. The bulk of Chinese investments are from private sector and concentrated in the highly shadowy and controversial online casino sector, which has been rife with crime and corruption if not espionage concerns. And even these are on the decline amid government’s crackdown on tax evasion.

And far from easing harassment of Filipino fishermen roaming the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, or negotiating a joint marine sanctuary in the area, Chinese coast guard and paramilitary forces have upped the ante. Since last year, an armada of Chinese militia-cum-fishermen have effectively besieged Philippine-occupied features in the Spratlys, while a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed into a Filipino vessel in the energy-rich Reed Bank.

Much to China’s consternation, however, the Philippines has also refused to sign a joint development agreement in the Reed Bank area, even when Xi Jinping visited Manila expressly for that purpose. If anything, Manila is once again exploring unilateral energy exploration, not too dissimilar from neighboring Malaysia.

Meanwhile, for the very first time Duterte has a foreign secretary (Teodoro Locsin) and defense secretary (Delfin Lorenzana) who have both been publicly critical of China’s aggressive behavior as well as openly supportive of the U.S.-Philippine alliance.  By comparison, Duterte’s former foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, was a staunch advocate for a pivot to China policy, rarely criticizing Beijing’s behavior within Philippine waters.

A Revived Alliance

The Lorenzana-Locsin duo, along with likeminded members of the defense and foreign policy establishment, likely played a central role in Duterte’s U-turn on abrogation of the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in June.

On one hand, there is growing concern over China’s brazen opportunism in adjacent waters amid the ongoing pandemic. But concerted efforts to revive and strengthen the U.S.-Philippine alliance have also been facilitated by the Trump administration’s growing clarity on the precise extent of its treaty commitments in the South China Sea.

Last March, Pompeo, standing next to Locsin during a press conference in Manila, confirmed, for the very first time and at the highest diplomatic level, that the U.S.-Philippine MDT specifically applies to the South China Sea.  “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual defense treaty,” he said, reminding his hosts “We have your back”.

This stood in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s infamous equivocation on the same question during a visit in 2014, when he dismissively described the South China Sea disputes as a spat over “a bunch of rocks”. Just months after Pompeo’s speech, the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, went a step further, claiming that the MDT also applies to gray zone attacks, namely “any armed attack” by “government-sanctioned militias”.

Last year, Defense Secretary Lorenzana implied that the two allies may indeed look at developing new operational guidelines to upgrade the MDT vis-à-vis gray zone threats from China. And this brings us to the importance of Pompeo’s latest policy statement, where he rejected China’s claims over the Scarborough Shoal and effectively arguing that Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal belong to the Philippines, since they fall within “areas that the [Arbitral] Tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf” and “Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction”.

Since at least as early as 2014, the U.S. State Department has publicly questioned the legal validity of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. But this seems to be the first time that Washington has effectively affirmed Manila’s claims over a number of Chinese-occupied or claimed features. This is also the first time it has issued such a specific warning against “Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas” or “any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources.”

Thus, were China to aggressively engage Philippine troops currently occupying the Second Thomas Shoal, or face Philippine resistance in reclaiming and militarizing the Scarborough Shoal, or unilaterally drill into the Reed Bank, there is greater reason than ever to expect an American intervention in Philippines’ behalf. Almost four years since Duterte’s public dare to the U.S. envoy in Manila, Washington may have finally given its answer on whether it meaningfully stands with its ally amid China’s rising maritime assertiveness.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.