A lot of attention and commentary was focused on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement on the “evolving regional security situation”:
“We both share deep concerns about the developments on the Korean Peninsula and events in the South China Sea, including recent tensions surrounding the Scarborough Shoal. In this context, the United States has been clear and consistent. While we do not take sides on the competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea, as a Pacific power we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and the unimpeded, lawful commerce across our sea lanes. The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter. We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims. And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines.”
Some analysts highlighted Clinton’s reiteration of US neutrality in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and interpreted it as unequivocal proof that the US was “abandoning” the Philippines and leaving it to “Beijing’s tender mercies.”
Some even concluded it made the Mutual Defense Treaty a useless scrap of paper and consequently called for its abrogation. That conclusion is un-nuanced and over the top because the US policy of neutrality applies not only to the Philippines but to all the countries with competing claims in the area. Clinton was not singling out the Philippines-China dispute; she was enunciating a universal policy.
The more telling part of Sec. Clinton’s remark and the one that directly affects our dispute with China is the one where she identifies the US “as a Pacific power” that has “a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and the unimpeded, lawful commerce across our sea lanes.”
In effect, Clinton is saying that the US will not takes sides in a skirmish over rocks in the sea but it will go to war against anyone who will take control of the sea lanes without its consent. That should give comfort to the Philippines because it straddles sea lanes that the US deems vital to its national interest. Rest assured the Panatag Shoals will remain out of China’s hands because the US will not allow a rival power to exercise exclusive control over such a strategic economic and military area.
Mutuality of interests, sovereignty for us and projection of power for the US, glues the Philippine-US strategic alliance.
Clinton also expressed her support for internationalizing the settlement of the disputes – “a rules-based multilateral, peaceful approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas within the framework of international law, including UNCLOS” – while implicitly warning China against the use of threats or force to get its way – “We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims.” That bit about UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is not as innocuous as it seems because China has been strongly and consistently against the Philippines bringing the Panatag dispute to UNCLOS. We have to thank Philippine officials for getting the Americans to explicitly side with us on that issue.
Finally, as a parting reminder to China about whose side the US is on, Clinton said, “And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines.”
The 2+2 meeting is a reaffirmation of the Manila Declaration signed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2011 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty.
The two secretaries signed the Manila Declaration on board the USS Fitzgerald, a counter-ballistic missile destroyer deployed with the US 7th Fleet. The symbolism cannot be ignored and neither can the declaration that said, “On this historic occasion, we reflect on the rich history of our alliance and the continuing relevance of the treaty for peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. We also reaffirm the treaty as the foundation of our relationship for the next 60 years and beyond.” So we have at least 60 years to make our defense capabilities strong enough to ward off Chinese mapmakers.