Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The United States has said it will not side with any party in the Spratlys conflict, which is to say that the Philippines' most powerful ally will not be coming to its aid should its spat with China escalate into a shooting war.
The US Embassy made this clear in reaction to a Malacanang (the presidential palace) statement expressing confidence that Washington would honour its commitment under the two countries' Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) to come to the aid of a beleaguered ally.
"The US does not take sides in regional territorial disputes," the US press attache Rebecca Thompson said in an e-mailed statement when contacted for comment to deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte's invoking of the 60-year-old MDT.
Thompson said the US was "troubled by incidents in the South China Sea in recent days that have raised tensions in the region" and that Washington opposes "the use or threat of force" by any of the countries with rival claims to the Spratly islands.
The brief statement said the US "shares a number of national interests with the international community in the South China Sea" but did not mention the Philippines or the two countries' over-a-hundred-year-old ties and mutual defence pact.
In an interview on state-run dzRB radio earlier on Saturday, Valte figured the Philippines could count on its superpower ally should the situation with China deteriorate because of the MDT.
"I haven't seen the terms of the MDT quite recently but I know that as an ally, the United States will help if ever it reaches that point because of the Mutual Defence Treaty," she said.
"Hopefully, it doesn't get to that point because, again, we are committed to the resolution of the issue in the most diplomatic and the most peaceful way possible," she added.
Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Oban was also earlier quoted as saying that the military remained "hopeful that the Americans will not stand aside should the conflict erupt and that they can invoke the MDT with the US".
The MDT was signed on Aug 13, 1951, in Washington, DC with both parties declaring "publicly and formally their sense of unity and their common determination to defend themselves against external armed attack".
Under the eight articles of the treaty, both parties agree to aid and support each other in settling any international disputes by peaceful means, among others.
Sentor Francis Escudero said the Department of Foreign Affairs should be designated as the lead agency to talk about the Spratlys issue in public.
Avoid any mistakes
He said Malacanang should not do so through its spokespersons "in order to avoid any faux pas on our part".
Escudero said the government should also review the MDT to ascertain if US forces would indeed come to the rescue if the Philippines is attacked because of the Spratlys dispute.
He said Palace officials should carefully review the MDT, read through its fine print and get confirmations from the US government "if indeed this situation is covered".
But he remained optimistic that US military support would be given in case of an armed conflict as "a gesture of longstanding friendship".
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the House would leave it to the Department of Foreign Affairs assert the country's sovereignty claim over the West Philippine Sea.
"The DFA is articulating our position and we're supporting it," he said.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Commodore Miguel Rodriguez said the AFP leaves it to the DFA to make an official comment on the developments in the Spratlys issue.
Not joining Viet Nam
"We submit our reports to the DFA and the DFA crafts the country's position on KIG [Kalayaan Island Group] affairs," he said, referring to the portion of the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines.
He also said the military was not joining Viet Nam, another Spratlys claimant, in the deepening rift with China over the issue.
"We are not looking at partnering with one country against another country," he said.
At a Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Independence Day dinner Saturday night, President Aquino came face to face with Chinese Ambassador Liu Jiangchao who only a few days ago had warned claimant states to stop exploring for oil in the Spratlys.
"Like all neighbours, I know we may have our disagreements sometimes," Aquino said in his speech, acknowledging Liu's presence.
"(But) no one can deny the benefits our relationship has brought to both our countries throughout the years," he added.
Liu adverted to "incidents" that have arisen between the two countries since Aquino came to power.
"But facts have manifested we are stronger than these tests," he said.
Liu said the August 23 botched hostage crisis involving Hong Kong tourists had been settled with a "loving and understanding heart".
"The last thing the Chinese government and people want to see is that the [Spratlys] dispute stands in the way of the progress of our wonderful relations and the friendship and brotherhood of our two peoples," Liu said, who hinted at a visit to China from Aquino later this year.
In the past two weeks, the Philippines has accused China of making at least six incursions into Philippine territory in the past four months, a charge that Beijing has dismissed as rumors.
Recently, the Aquino government has made a point of referring to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea to bolster its claim to certain parts of the Spratlys. With reports from Christian V. Esguerra, DJ Yap and Cynthia D. Balana