Development Should Guide US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty Review

By Dan Steinbock    

In times of great uncertainty, strategic ambiguity offers little clarity. The review of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty should be guided by the quest for sovereignty and economic development.


During his recent visit in the Philippines, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met Murad Ebrahim, the Filipino Muslim rebel leader who became a regional governor under the Malaysian-brokered peace deal. In the course of the meeting, Mahathir told to Murad that “it’s easy to shoot and kill, but it’s difficult to develop. If there is peace, then everything will come.”

Mahathir’s words offer guidance in intra-country divides, but also in inter-country friction, including the review of the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States.

In early March, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government should review the MDT to avoid provoking a potential armed conflict with China in the South China Sea. Lorenzana pointed out that the security environment in the region is today “much more complex” than in the early Cold War era, when it was drawn up. “The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future.”

Obviously, there are different views about the preferred future of the MDT in Manila, Washington and elsewhere. Typically, most are predicated on geopolitical arguments, treaty texts and interpretations of various statements.

Yet, Mahathir’s wisdom matters. Development is not viable without peace. In the long-run, it is the quest for economic development that should drive the MDT debate.

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Sovereignty and “zero problems” foreign policy

Since the early 2000s, the rapid growth of the so-called BRIC economies has greatly inspired debates on economic development. As a large emerging economy with solid structural potential for the future, Philippines could draw from the lessons of these countries.

As I have stressed since my 2014 Mabini lecture at the Foreign Service Institute, there is nothing automatic about strong growth potential. Vital economic, political and security shifts can support or penalize growth.

In light of Mahathir’s views, the most important lesson may well be the “zero problems policy,” which was developed a decade ago by former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu who lectured in Malaysia in the Mahathir era.

Historically, this approach has been typical to successful industrializers in the emerging world. From the 1980s to 2000s, China was largely focused on inward development, though gradually building international relations. The same goes for India’s industrialization in the past two decades. In Brazil, the most intensive phase of modernization occurred earlier but could only be completed in the Lula era.

Development is not viable without peace. In the long-run, it is the quest for economic development that should drive the MDT debate.

In Southeast Asia, the rise of Singapore only took off after Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership overcame race riots and began a decisive focus on development. In Vietnam, reunification and reforms could only move ahead after colonialism and triumphs against the French and U.S. neocolonial wars. In Indonesia, both Sukarno and Suharto sought rapid industrialization, but it was only completed with peace and stability in the era of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).

Of course, none of the large emerging economies have been able to avoid all conflicts, many of which stem from colonial legacies following artificial partitions (India), invasions and wars (China), and structural dependency (Brazil). Yet, the effort to reduce friction in foreign relations, in order to focus on economic development has been typical to successful modernization.

What these large emerging economies also share is their insistence on sovereignty. After decades, even centuries of colonial “divide and rule,” they want to control their own future. While all of them seek to cooperate and partner with other nations in different ways, they do not easily tolerate the military presence of other countries within their territories.

As evidenced by the Middle East, such presence is not just a reminder of colonial legacies but can violate their sovereignty and result in destructive proxy conflicts in the region.


Economic development first

Following the recalibration of the Philippine foreign policy, there is nothing so challenging in the country’s bilateral relations with China that could not be negotiated in a mutually satisfactory way over time.

But just as Manila would not easily tolerate an anti-Philippine stance by foreign troops in China, it is hardly surprising that Beijing has concerns about any military presence by third-party countries in the Philippines – especially in light of historical track-record.

The Philippines became U.S. colony after the Spanish-American war and the subsequent Philippine-American War. The promised independence materialized only after Japanese invasion and the end of World War II in 1946. Yet, a strong U.S. military presence remained in the country until 1991.

What Manila needs is strengthened sovereignty, strong ASEAN cooperation and development.

Following President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011, President Aquino and his foreign minister Albert del Rosario achieved the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), as a sort of a prelude to more intimate collaboration with the anticipated presidency of Senator Mar Roxas in 2016.

The scenario was foiled by Duterte’s electoral triumph, which, reportedly, led to a regime change plan by former U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in fall 2017.

In all these scenarios – from the late 1890s up to present – Philippines has been seen as a geopolitical platform to project U.S. hard power in the region, particularly vis-à-vis China, as most historians acknowledge.  


Toward peace, development and prosperity

When defense secretary Lorenzana said last December that the objective of the MDT Treaty review would be to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it,” he presented three clear future scenarios to the country.

Any scenario that would maintain or strengthen the MDT runs the risk of undermining Philippine sovereignty, exposing the country to costly entanglements and potentially fatal conflicts in the region, which, in turn, would undermine the quest for economic development. Instead, what Manila needs is strengthened sovereignty, strong ASEAN cooperation and development.

Successful economic modernization is not viable without sovereignty and focus on development, as evidenced by the history of the BRIC economies (and that of the United States).

When the MDT was signed in 1951, the U.S. and advanced countries still dominated world growth, whereas emerging Asia was struggling amid poverty. Today, China and emerging countries fuel global growth prospects, while emerging Asia is catching up with higher living standards – but only as long as peaceful conditions prevail in the region.

So if economic development is to remain the national priority, these are the facts that should guide the review of the MDT in the new and far more complex security environment.

The original commentary was released by The Manila Times on March 18, 2019

Featured image: U.S. Department of State


About the Author

Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized expert of the multipolar world. He is the founder of global consultancy Difference Group Ltd, which focuses on international business, international relations, investment and risk among and between advanced and emerging economies. He has consulted worldwide and been on media advisory boards of world’s leading media and management consultancies. His commentaries and interviews have been released by some 250 media outlets in all world regions. He has been part of and worked with leading research universities, think-tanks, and government agencies in the United States, Europe, China, India, and all world regions. He is founder of global consultancy DifferenceGroup.