PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty should also cover civilian passenger craft, Locsin says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 10) — Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. is pushing for a revision in the country's Mutual Defense Treaty with the US to include armed attack against civilian passenger vessels as a "trigger" for military assistance.

"Will work to expand definition of trigger to include civilian passenger craft which is logical," Locsin tweeted Saturday.

It was part of a series of tweets discussing ABS-CBN's report that its news crew, onboard a Filipino civilian vessel, was chased down by two missile attack craft of the Chinese Navy, as well as a China Coast Guard ship, when the group tried to enter Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

READ: PH probes reported Chinese attack craft's chase of Filipino civilian vessel in WPS

"Wrong vessel," Locsin said over Twitter on Friday.

"MDT triggered only by an attack on Philippine public vessel," he added, even mentioning ABS-CBN's lack of a legislative franchise.

The MDT, signed by Manila and Washington in 1951, states the two countries will come to each other's defense in case their metropolitan areas or territories in the Pacific are attacked by a foreign force.

"[A]n armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific," the treaty reads.

"I’m not being sarcastic. Seriously, what if Filipinos on a pleasure craft, one of many yachts out there, crosses an invisible line drawn by China IN Philippine waters? What if they are fired upon or heaven forbid rammed—no, not that; those yachts cost millions of dollars," Locsin said in another tweet.

Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said Locsin's tweets show the potential threat posed by China's actions against freedom of navigation.

"PH civilian ships in PH waters should not have to worry about unknowingly tripping some invisible wire that makes them targets of China's cannons and missiles," Batongbacal said.

Locsin responded it is China that "should worry more."

"Trip over the wire it's WW3 (World War 3)," he said. He went on to say the MDT should also cover civilian vessels.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also proposed amending the MDT earlier to provide a clear answer to whether or not the US would come to the Philippines' rescue in case tensions escalate in the disputed South China Sea. In November 2019, Lorenzana said the two countries' officials were still in "low-level discussion."

However, in February 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte moved to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which complements the MDT, but he has since suspended the abrogation. His foreign policy has been seen as a pivot toward China and away from traditional allies like the US, although his administration officials call it an independent "friend to all, enemy to none" policy.

In a recent phone call with Locsin, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reaffirmed the applicability of the MDT to the South China Sea. Blinken's spokesperson, Ned Price, disclosed the two diplomats "welcomed enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation" in the wake of the presence of suspected Chinese militia vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

The US does not claim any part of the South China Sea but conducts freedom of navigation operations, and calls out Beijing's alleged militarization and expansive territorial claims. Meanwhile, China claims almost the entire global waterway, including areas Manila considers the West Philippine Sea, through a historic nine-dash line that an arbitral ruling had already invalidated.