Top PH officials disagree on need to review U.S. defense treaty

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FILE PHOTO | Philippine marines with the U.S. Joint Rapid Reaction Force conduct an amphibious landing utilizing Philippine logistical navy ships to seize a scenario-based objective as part of Exercise Balikatan 2016, in Antique, Philippines, April 11, 2016.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 1) — Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana on Friday publicly disagreed on the need to review the country's decades-old mutual defense treaty (MDT) with the United States.

Locsin stood firm against revisiting the MDT to address the rising tension in the South China Sea, adding the vagueness in the provisions will work in the country's favor.

"Some seek a review of the MDT. This requires further thought. In vagueness lies uncertainty: a deterrent. Specificity invites evasion and actions outside the MDT framework. But too much vagueness lends itself to doubt the firmness of commitments," he said in a joint media briefing with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The MDT is an agreement between the Philippines and the U.S. that states that the two countries would assist each other when either of them is attacked by a foreign force.

But Lorenzana also stood pat on his move to review the MDT and would still meet with U.S. Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Felter tentatively "within the middle of this month" to clear up what he sees as ambiguities in the nearly 68-year-old treaty.

He said the review will be good for the Philippines, citing an instance of a collision between Chinese and American frigates in the South China Sea.

Among the things he wants cleared up is the "lag time" of U.S. response since its Congress will have to concur with the move to assist the Philippines. He also wants a clearer definition of the term "attack," citing China's expansion and incursion in the West Philippine Sea -- the area of the South China Sea being claimed or occupied by the Philippines.

Lorenzana earlier also said the U.S. interpretation of the MDT only covered the "metropolitan" Philippines and not the West Philippine Sea.

"Yun pang kanilang (US) belief na they don't want to interfere to our territorial disputes, so nagkaron tuloy ng blanket authority ang Chinese to grab reefs there in the WPS," he added Friday.

[Translation: The U.S. belief that they don't want to interfere in our territorial disputes has given rise to China's blanket authority to grab reefs there in the West Philippine Sea.]

Pompeo, who made an overnight visit to the Philippines, told a news briefing Friday that "any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty."

It was not clear, however, if by South China Sea Pompeo meant international sea lanes there or if it includes Philippine-claimed areas of the sea. Washington has stuck to a policy not to interfere in questions of sovereignty among countries with competing claims to the hotly-contested waters.

China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety. Other claimants include Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Taiwan. 

Locsin said that with the conflicting opinions, there is currently a "dynamic exchange that is going on in the government" regarding the call for an update on the MDT. He is holding on to the promise of U.S. that it will protect the Philippines in case of an attack in the disputed waters.

"In vagueness lies the best deterrent. How do you flesh out that vagueness? In repeated assurances by the United States that in the event war, an act of aggression is committed against the Philippines, I don't believe going down into the details is the way the sincerity of the American commitment will be shown... They will respond depending on the circumstance," he said.

The foreign affairs chief added, "We are very assured, we are very confident that the United States has - in the words of Secretary Pompeo and President Trump to our President - 'We have your back.'"

However, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo backed Lorenzana, saying there is still a need to look into the agreement despite Pompeo's assurance.

CNN Philippines Senior Correspondent David Santos contributed to this report.