President Barrack Obama’s visit to the Philippines last April 28-29, 2014 was very important because it more or less answered one of the most important questions in the minds of Filipinos right now which is, will the United States (US) help the Philippines retain its territories in the Spratly Islands? Sadly, the answer is a clear … NO. There are a couple of indications on why this is so, let me try to enumerate them one by one.
Historically as early as 1975 the US had already outlined its position on the Spratlys Islands, specifically in a telegram sent by the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet that was declassified in 2006.1 In it, Kissinger outlined that they consider the ownership of the Spratlys as “undetermined” and that they take a “neutral” stance in the claims of various countries in terms of ownership. This means that the US does NOT recognize our ownership of territories in the Spratly Islands, this is because they say NONE of those territories were ceded over to them in the Treaty of Paris in 1898 when Spain surrendered some of their colonies (including the Philippines) to the US. So all the while we’re telling the Americans that those Spratly Islands are ours, they are saying back, “Oh no they’re not, nobody owns those yet.”
Now what about if Philippine forces were attacked while occupying territories in the Spratlys, for example, will the US come to our aid, then? Well, Kissassinger have an answer for that also. He says that the US is NOT obligated to come to the aid of those Philippine forces if they occupied territories without the consent or approval of the US. Now we ARE currently stationing troops in the Spratlys, and since there is no clear approval from the US to station our troops there due to their neutral position, then they can wash their hands of any involvement regardless of what happens to those forces.
‘International Observations and Factors’
While the US is NOT LEGALLY bound to help our cause in the Spratlys, they can still come to our aid for political reasons if they want to do so. HOWEVER, a couple of international observers have expressed doubt that the US will indeed help the Philippines against China on the issue of the Spratly’s islands for political reasons, and among them is Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY).2 LKY, the architect of Singapore’s rise into first world status, still holds a lot of prestige, and thus his opinions do carry a lot of weight in the Asian region. Lee opines that the US will not sacrifice its relations with China on the issue of the Spratlys not only for political reasons but also for economic reasons as well.
US imports of Chinese goods have been around USD 400 Billion per year the last couple of years,3 and China has also become the largest foreign creditor of the US, holding around 11% of the US debt at around USD 1.25 Trillion.4 Thus any move that could affect the economic relations of both countries, like war for example, will mean dire consequences for the economies of both countries.5
‘From the Horse’s Mouth’
Barrack Obama reiterated the US’ historical position about the Spratlys during his visit here, albeit in an indirect manner. Local Journalists asked Obama directly during a Press Conference if the US will defend the Philippines if the Spratly Islands issue turn into an armed conflict, and his response was: “We do not have claims in this area territorially. We are an Asia Pacific nation and our prominent interest is peaceful resolution of conflict … And we don’t even take specific positions on the disputes between nations.”6
As everyone can see, Obama did not just “beat around the bush”, he DANCED and jiggled around it, and probably even did the Macarena. He did not say “no”, but clearly he did not say yes either. In fact it seems he wanted to say “no”, but became diplomatic about it and just replied with an incredibly evasive answer that was neither here nor there.
To make matters worst, Obama then gave a follow up statement saying, “Our goal is not to counter China; Our goal is not to contain China.” Now, if we take this IN CONTEXT with our present problems with China, then this is a slap in our faces because basically he is saying they don’t care that China is bullying its neighbors in the Spratly Islands, he is saying that China’s expansion is NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS.
I think that we need the help of the US to help us defend our territories against China because without their help, I just don’t see any way how we can keep the Chinese from getting those Spratlys territories if they really want to. China is no ordinary country, they are projected to be the NUMBER ONE economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world this year (2014) surpassing that of the US, the first time in 140 years that the US will give up its position as the number one economy in the world.7 In comparison, the Philippines’ ranking by GDP is number 39, or 38 rungs lower than China.8
As a result of its powerful economy, China also has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, projected at number 3 overall in the world (the Philippines is ranked only at number 37, or 34 places lower).9 Hence, in dealing with a country as economically and militarily powerful as China, there are just NO SHORTCUTS. Its not like we just buy military equipment here and there and then suddenly we can stand up to them … It just doesn’t work out that way. In order for us to able to stand up to them on our own and keep them at bay without the help of the US, it will take YEARS, probably at least a DECADE OR SO of CONTINUOUS military build up.
The question begs then, if the US won’t help us defend our territories in the Spratly Islands, then what’s the use of us siding with them? Well, for one I think the US will help defend MAINLAND Philippines, which means all of our major territories like Palawan thus would be safe from Chinese ambitions. With American troops in the Philippines, China would not dare attack our mainland and would just have to be content with the Spratlys territories … For now.
Also, the US’ reluctance to help us is based on the fact that they don’t believe in our ownership claim of the Spratlys. The Philippine government has already filed a case with the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to bolster and establish once and for all our claims on those islands, and IF they rule in our favor, then I expect that the US will CHANGE their position and that they will be OBLIGATED to help us defend those islands also.
I am basing this on the fact that while Obama dilly-dallied on the issue of the Spratlys, he did NOT hesitate to specifically and directly commit in public that the US will help Japan defend the Senkaku Islands against China if the issue turned into an armed conflict.10 This is probably because the US believes that Japan has a better, solid claim to those islands. HOWEVER, if ITLOS rules in our favor, and the US still maintains its current position of non-interference, then we will have a big problem, not only with China, but also with the US.
Obama’s statements during his visit clearly showed that America is still sticking to that position outlined by Kissassinger long ago, that they don’t believe our ownership of those islands and thus are in no obligation to help us defend them. That SHOULD change if ITLOS rules in our favor, but then again if they make any other ruling NOT in our favor, then they will continue to stick to their current position. Hence the ITLOS ruling is VERY critical for us, it will decide whether we get to keep our territories in the Spratlys or not, and possibly if we need to continue with the current status of our alliance with the US or not.
Will Washington defend the Philippines?,
Lee: US won’t risk China relations over sea row,
Trade in Goods with China,
China Retains Position as the Largest Foreign Creditor of U.S.,
What happens in a US debt default?,
No categorical commitment from US on China dispute,
China To Have World’s Largest Economy This Year: World Bank,
Wikipedia List of countries by GDP (nominal),
Countries Ranked by Military Strength (2014),
US President Obama promised to defend Senkaku but not Spratlys,