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Will Washington Leave the Philippines in the Lurch — Again?

At the April summit, the world will be watching whether the US keeps its promise to the Philippines or takes the "legal" escape route as with Scarborough Shoal.



Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, US President Joe Biden (©Getty via Kyodo), and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

On April 11, United States President Joe Biden, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr will meet in Washington, DC. This is the first such joint meeting — and it's thanks to Xi Jinping.

How so? Chinese pressure on both the Philippines' and Japan's maritime territory is bringing everyone together.

And the stakes are high.

Back to the Future

The Philippines is fighting off aggressive Chinese encroachment on its maritime territory. It isn't the first time.

In 2012, the Chinese grabbed Scarborough Shoal — well within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.

The US did nothing when the Chinese broke their promise to then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell to withdraw its ships and instead remained to occupy Scarborough Shoal.

State Department lawyers produced excuses for why the mutual defense treaty didn't apply. 


The Filipinos were dismayed.

Then, in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of Philippine claims and largely demolished Beijing's claims. The Barack Obama administration remained mostly mute — expecting the PRC would reciprocate the restraint. 

It didn't. 

Instead, it dismissed the ruling as a piece of "scrap paper."

Even worse, the Americans had encouraged the Philippines to bring the suit.

The Americans now have two strikes on them as far as many Filipinos are concerned.


China is still on Scarborough Shoal. Now it is trying to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Philippines to resupply its men stationed on a deliberately grounded Philippine Navy ship on Second Thomas Shoal. Its location, as determined by the Court of Arbitration, is well inside Philippines waters.

Besides bumping and blocking, the Chinese blast the Philippine ships with high-power water hoses. This causes structural damage and serious injury to crewmen — including Philippine military personnel.


The Chinese — including a PLA Navy helicopter — are also interfering with the Philippines' ocean research efforts in Philippine waters.

The Filipinos gamely resist, but the Chinese have the upper hand. And anytime they want they can keep the Filipinos from their own territory.

In this handout photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese coast guard ship uses water canons on a Philippine ship near the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, South China Sea, during its re-supply mission on Aug. 5, 2023.

President Marcos has stuck his neck out since taking office two years ago. He's shifted his country away from China and revived the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The agreement allows US military access to a number of facilities in the Philippines. Military exercises with the Americans and others have also ramped up.

The Americans have done joint naval and air patrols elsewhere in the South China Sea. But US ships and planes haven't accompanied the Filipinos to where the Chinese get rough with the Philippine ships. Nor have they when the Philippines asserts its rights by, for example, removing China-installed barriers at the entrance to Scarborough Shoal.

Philippine President Marcos is looking for help at this meeting.

Are Marcos' and the Philippines' hopes misplaced? 

They will soon find out.

Beyond pushing the Filipinos around, Beijing is challenging the United States. 

Marcos must be praying the Americans don't leave the Philippines in the lurch again.

The Stakes

So the stakes are high, as are Filipino expectations.


The Americans are talking a good game.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Manila recently: "[…] we stand with the Philippines and stand by our ironclad defense commitments, including under the mutual defense treaty."

And following the most recent Chinese water-cannoning attack and blocking moves at Second Thomas Shoal, the US State Department declared:

"The United States stands with its ally the Philippines and condemns the dangerous actions by the People's Republic of China (PRC) against lawful Philippine maritime operations in the South China Sea on March 23.  

"The United States reaffirms that Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft — including those of its Coast Guard — anywhere in the South China Sea."

All good, but US spokesmen always seem at pains to stress that it is "armed" attacks that trigger American support. 

And people in Manila (and Beijing) notice this.

The Philippines might worry that the Americans are once again looking for a way out. 


They've heard empty pronouncements before. 

And the Chinese might reckon that as long as they don't "shoot," the Americans won't do much.

Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels surround a Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat (center) near Ayungin Reef in the South China Sea. On October 4, 2023 (©Philippine Coast Guard via Kyodo)

The Spirit of a Treaty

A Filipino friend noted the other day:

"We can take only so much. People feel the Chinese push us to the point where Washington will have to step up and do more."

Washington might or might not.

It can take the "legal" escape route, or it can keep its promises.

You see, there's the precise wording of a treaty — but there's also the spirit of a treaty. 

The US-Philippine security treaty presumably did not intend to allow an enemy (the PRC) to use water cannons and a swarm of ships to occupy and seize Philippine territory.

The Biden administration either gives the Philippines the help it needs and was promised at least under the spirit of the treaty — and runs the risk of a fight with China, or it accepts humiliation at the hands of the Chinese and retreats.


Strike Three?

And it's not just the Filipinos watching what Washington will do next. Everyone else in Asia (and beyond) will make up their own minds about US promises of protection — explicit or implicit.

And if it fails, that will be "strike three" for the United States.

It might as well go home at that point.

What about the Japanese? They know they are next on Beijing's menu. They are quietly doing a lot for the Philippines — and they should keep it up. It would be nice if Japan Coast Guard ships helped out, but that's unlikely. 

By showing up to the meeting Japan is letting the Philippines know it is involved. Japan might also be hinting that it expects the US military to pitch in when it needs help protecting Japanese maritime territory.

But, ultimately, it's the Americans who have the treaty with the Philippines, and whose "word" is on the line.

As it happens, Kurt Campbell, who was bamboozled at the time of the Scarborough Shoal retreat is the current Deputy Secretary of State. And Jake Sullivan — the current National Security Advisor — was State's Director of Policy Planning and then National Security Advisor to the Vice-President. And the then Vice-President, Joseph Biden, is now President. 

This team has been here before. The question is, will history repeat itself, or have they learned from their mistakes? 



Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book "When China Attacks: A Warning To America."

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