By Manuel Mogato

(photo courtesy of Exercise Balikatan Facebook Page)

The United States and its former colony, the Philippines, will hold a bilateral security dialogue next week in Manila to further strengthen and deepen security ties in the face of growing power competition in the Indo-Pacific region and rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea, a senior defense department official said on Thursday.

Washington has made an “ironclad” commitment to defend its oldest ally in this part of the world in case of external aggression or an attack on a public ship or aircraft in the Pacific under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had wanted reviewed to keep up with the evolving security environment.

The security pact was made at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, but modern military conflicts have evolved with new and advanced technologies, including cyber warfare and threats from non-state actors, like Islamist extremists.

“We plan to review and take stock of our bilateral alliance and see how the two countries could further deepen security cooperation and interoperability of the our armed forces,” said a senior defense official familiar with the two-day talks scheduled on July 15 to 16.

The defense officials, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said the discussion would focus on helping the Philippines upgrade and enhance its maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea as well as its porous southern borders, where pro-Islamic State militants freely travel and conduct attacks on shipping and fishing vessels.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in deposits of energy and minerals and has lucrative fishing grounds. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have conflicting claims on the strategic waterway where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods pass every year.

The senior defense official said they would have to get updates from the US side on a number of Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement-related projects, funded under its 2019 to 2020 programs. Last month, the Pentagon announced 12 construction projects in five Philippine military bases, which the United States had been given access to.

Four of the five bases are air force bases, where the United States can rotate aircraft, including fighters and surveillance planes, since Washington has very limited footprint in the region. Almost of all its forward air bases are in South Korea and Japan.

The Philippines has also expressed interest in acquiring eight Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles to increase surveillance and reconnaissance coverage of its maritime borders in the South China Sea. The United States had earlier transferred to the Philippines six Scan Eagle drones.


Manuel “Manny” Mogato has been a journalist for 35 years. A former Reuters correspondent, Mogato covered politics, disasters, insurgencies and diplomacy. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2018.