Guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur conducts a live-fire in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy via AFP

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Tuesday that Washington was more likely than Manila to stumble into a “shooting war” with Beijing, and that a review of a long-standing defense treaty is needed.

Lorenzana’s comments conflicted with the stance of Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin who supports keeping the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty intact to act as a deterrent.

“The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future. But the United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war,” Lorenzana said, as quoted by Rappler.

“In such a case and on the basis of the MDT, the Philippines will be automatically involved,” he said, stressing that “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.”

The statement comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did his best to reassure Manila that the US would come to its ally’s defense if attacked by China.

“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,” Pompeo said during a visit to Manila last week.

Locsin quoted Pompeo as telling him, “We have your back.”

The divide within the administration of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is reflective of an increasing ambivalence in Manila regarding its relationship with Washington.

Duterte has taken a combative approach in dealing with the long-standing treaty ally, often criticizing the United States in blunt terms, while cultivating warmer ties with China. But despite Duterte’s pivot to China, many lawmakers and officials in the defense establishment have expressed support for maintaining strong ties with the US and wariness of striking deals with China.

The Philippines is engaged in a territory dispute with China, including over features in the South China Sea that Beijing has fortified with naval installations.

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