Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday there was a need for a comprehensive review of the Philippines' alliance with the United States, complaining Manila got less from its relationship with Washington than non-treaty allies despite growing pressure from China.
At an online event to mark the 70th anniversary of the countries' mutual defense treaty (MDT), Lorenzana said there was a need to "upgrade" and "update" the alliance and to make clear the "extent of American commitments."
"Some questions being asked in Manila are, do we still need the MDT? Should we amend it?" he told Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the 1951 pact. "What is clear is that we need a comprehensive review of our alliance."
Lorenzana, in Washington for meetings with American officials, said the U.S. treaty with Japan, its World War Two enemy, was more explicit than that with Manila when it came to determining whether it applied in the Pacific maritime area, where the Philippines has come under increasing pressure from China over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.
He said this explained why seven out of 10 Filipinos supported President Rodrigo Duterte's call for engagement with China rather than confrontation and more than half doubted U.S. reliability as an ally in South China Sea disputes.
Lorenzana said U.S.-Philippines relations would "have to evolve in recognition of new geopolitical realities, most especially the rise of China."
He said Manila and Washington should consider revising the MDT and other defense pacts to ensure both could better respond to "gray zone threats" like state-sanctioned maritime militia forces that have been intimidating smaller states.
Manila has repeatedly protested what it calls the "illegal" and "threatening" presence of hundreds of Chinese "maritime militia" vessels inside its exclusive economic zone.
Lorenzana echoed Duterte's complaints about U.S. reluctance to supply the Philippines with state-of-the-art weaponry.
He said Manila was in the midst of an unprecedented military modernization program and needed to move beyond Vietnam War-era hardware that had been provided by Washington in the past.
"Non-treaty allies ... have been receiving billion-dollar military aid and advanced weapons systems from the U.S. Perhaps, a longtime ally like the Philippines, facing major adversaries in Asia, deserves as much, if not more, assistance and commitment," he said.
Lorenzana's remarks came after Duterte in July restored a pact governing the movement of U.S. troops in and out of the country, something strategically vital for American efforts to counter China.
Duterte had vowed to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement after Washington denied a visa to a Philippine senator who is an ally of the president.
For Washington, having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for defense of the Philippines, but strategically when it comes to countering China in the region.
In July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated a warning to China that an attack on Philippine armed forces in the South China Sea would trigger the mutual defense treaty.