Philippines Seeks U.S. Help In Dispute With China Over Maritime Law

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana of the Philippines is urging Washington to review its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines in the light of new Chinese maritime legislation. China has claimed most of the South China Sea and has been in maritime disputes with many Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, for years. China’s amended Maritime Traffic Safety Law took effect on 1 September. The law requires foreign vessels sailing in the South China Sea to report their information to the Chinese authorities. This covers submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials, ships carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas, and other toxic and harmful substances, and other vessels “that might endanger China’s maritime traffic safety,” according to the Global Times. In 2016 it was ruled at The Hague that China’s current claim to most of the South China Sea has no legal basis. However, Beijing has continuously pushed to expand its presence in the area, including by building artificial islands. This has fueled tension with other countries in the region, and the Philippines has continuously asked its main ally, the U.S., for its support. 

Specifically, the Philippines is urging Washington to increase its military commitment. Lorenzana believes that a comprehensive review of the Manila-Washington alliance is now crucial, claiming that the Philippines is getting less from the U.S. than its non-treaty allies in the region, according to Al Jazeera. Beijing claims that this new law does not hinder the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Lorenzana said that there is a need to “upgrade” and “update” the treaty with the U.S. and to make clear the “extent of American commitments.” “Some questions being asked in Manila are, do we still need the MDT [Mutual Defense Treaty]; should we amend it,” he told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday; “What is clear is that we need a comprehensive review of our alliance.” It is important to note that seven out of ten Filipinos support President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for engagement rather than confrontation with China, and more than half of the population doubt Washington’s reliability as an ally in South China Sea disputes. Lorenzana also added, “Non-treaty allies … have been receiving billion-dollar military aid and advanced weapons systems from the US. Perhaps, a longtime ally like the Philippines, facing major adversaries in Asia, deserves as much, if not more, assistance and commitment.” 

The disputes in the South China Sea have been prominent in international news for years, and it is apparent that China is gaining more and more leverage in this game. On one side there is China, and on the other side are multiple countries, such as the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan, that are all much less powerful than China. The power struggle is the real issue. Not only does China has an upper hand when it comes to military power, but many of the South East Asian countries also rely on China for their economic and social development. As time goes by, the power gap appears to be getting larger and larger. Therefore, if China keeps pushing and the U.S. is not doing anything to counter it, there is a real possibility that the South China Sea will end up under the complete control of China. It is understandable then that the Philippines is calling for more action from the United States.

This maritime law, if fully enforced, would mean that China is gaining even more control of the South China Sea. This is a real threat to the Philippines because it would mean that whatever they do in the region would have to be reported to its rival, meaning that Manila would be giving in completely to Beijing. That is why it is crucial for the U.S. to prevent the law from being passed, or at least alter it. The law must take into account that areas of the South China Sea are claimed by other countries and respect that. If the U.S. fails to protect the interests of these countries, then China will have more power in the region, causing the U.S. to lose some of its influence. Moreover, the U.S. will also be viewed as an unreliable ally that does not value its treaties. There is no perfect solution to this problem since the economies of the U.S. and China are inextricably linked to each other. Regardless, if the U.S. does not want China’s power to rise rapidly, it must start protecting its allies’ interests, and that includes the Philippines.

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