China’s Coast Guard had intercepted and prevented a small Philippine indigenous boat from bringing food and fresh water to troops stationed aboard a naval transport vessel stuck in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

The Chinese Coast Guard also stopped a rigid-hulled rubber boat escorting the supply ship, confiscating the guns and puncturing the vessel.

During a scuffle, one of the Filipino soldiers lost a finger, and several others were also injured. They were held briefly before they were released.

China’s disruptive actions were not only illegal, aggressive, and dangerous. It was a direct assault on a Philippine military vessel.

It could trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). It may not be an armed attack. No vessel was sunk, and no personnel was killed.

But it was supposed to be a severe provocation, enough for the Philippines and its treaty ally, the United States, to respond vigorously.

The Philippines and the United States didn’t need to declare war against China for such an incident.

However, the two allies should take more decisive action to prevent a repeat of the Ayungin incident or any further Chinese actions that could endanger lives.

The United States had many options to respond to China’s dangerous and illegal actions in the West Philippine Sea, short of invoking the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Washington could increase its presence in the disputed waters and hold frequent joint sails and freedom of navigation patrols (Fonops) with Manila and other allies in the region.

For instance, a day before the Ayungin incident, a US Navy destroyer sailed jointly with the Canadian, Japanese, and Philippine warships in the West Philippine Sea.

It was the second four-nation joint sail after a similar activity in May among Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States.

During Balikatan drills, the Philippines and the United States sailed with France and were also in the country’s maritime zones.

There was something odd in the resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal. There was no Philippine Coast Guard presence.

Sailors escorted the wooden supply ship on a small rubber boat although they could have come from a larger naval vessel nearby.

There was no explanation for the absence of an escort from the Philippine Coast Guard.

The Philippines may experiment with many ways to rotate and resupply BRP Sierra Madre. It had recently tried to drop supplies from aircraft from the Philippine Air Force and the Philippine Navy.

Who knows? Could the Philippines have planned the incident for China to deliberately stop, board, and damage a Philippine Navy rubber boat and draw the Americans to take action under the Mutual Defense Treaty?

Washington normally does not take unilateral action. It usually moves in with the consent and invitation of an ally, like when it deployed its Typhoon intermediate-range missile launcher in the northern Philippines in April for exercise Salaknib.

China reacted strongly and condemned the United States and the Philippines for the deployment of a missile system that could threaten southern China.

The assault of the Philippine Navy’s rubber boat on June 17 could be a pretext for more and closer maritime cooperation between the Philippines and the United States.

The Pentagon can deploy US Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships to escort Philippine resupply vessels.

The US can also increase its presence in the disputed sea, sailing more often near China’s man-made islands in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

It could also increase surveillance flights and air patrols together with other allies and partners, including the Philippines.

In the US Congress, there had been a raging debate on whether the US Navy could escort the Philippine supply boats to prevent Chinese harassment.

China has been blocking, ramming, and blasting with water cannons at Philippine supply boats in the West Philippine Sea.

Dozens of People’s Liberation Army-Navy warships, Coast Guard, and militia vessels have also put up blockades around Philippine-held features in the South China Sea.

China has also resorted to cognitive warfare, blaming the Philippines and the United States for creating trouble in the West Philippine Sea.

On the June 17 incident, China blamed the Philippines for “illegally entering its territorial waters” in Ayungin Shoal and deliberately ramming its Coast Guard vessel.

But it’s hard to believe a small wooden boat deliberately rammed a large, steel-hulled Chinese Coast Guard vessel.

The Philippines cannot second guess what the United States would do if it invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty after the June 17 incident.

These are political decisions on both sides. That could be a reason why the Armed Forces of the Philippines or the Philippine Navy have not released an official statement on the recent Chinese harassment.

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro has to recommend to the foreign affairs secretary and the president to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty or whatever action to prevent a repeat of the June 17 incident.

For the United States, it has to consult its legislature on any action to be taken once the treaty is invoked.

The hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Indo-Pacific Command are tied. They must obey the political decision.

The militaries of the Philippines and the US meet annually under the Mutual Defense Board (MDB) to plan joint and combined training and exercises and close to 500 military and non-military activities.

Usually, several scenarios were discussed and approved in the MDB for planning and executing large-scale drills, like Balikatan, Salaknib, and Kamagdag.

Every year, the two militaries discuss responses to all possible scenarios affecting the two countries’ security, not just hypothetical and imaginary, for exercise purposes and accurate and actual contingencies.

The mutual defense plan was also reviewed, discussed, and often updated. There was also an annual review of the provisions under the Visiting Forces Agreement.

In the past, the US would reject a scenario involving a Chinese invasion or action on the local military.

That could have changed when the US recognized China as a competitor and a threat in the region.

But there were no political representations. The MDB reports to the State Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs, not to the defense establishments.

There are no political representations on the board. The US Indo-Pacific commander reports directly to the defense secretary, not to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, while the AFP chief of staff, to the defense secretary.

There was a time when the defense secretary was not part of the chain of command as General Fabian Ver used to report directly to President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

That changed when Fidel Ramos became the defense secretary under President Corazon Aquino. That may have changed during the succeeding presidencies.

Invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty is not easy. It should be the last resort. The Philippines’ allies must not limit themselves to empty statements but help Manila build its capabilities and capacities to deter China’s bullying.