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story.lead_photo.caption Protesters burn cardboard-cut jet fighters with mock U.S. and China flags as they hold a protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

MANILA, Philippines -- The United States is more likely to be involved in a "shooting war" in the disputed South China Sea than the Philippines, but the latter would still be embroiled in such a conflict because of its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington, the Philippine defense chief said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the treaty needed to be re-examined to clear ambiguities. He cited China's seizure in the mid-1990s of a Philippine-claimed reef, saying, "The U.S. did not stop it."

The Philippine proposal for the treaty's review was among the key topics when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last week.

The treaty behind one of the longest-standing security alliances in Asia calls on the U.S. and the Philippines to come to each other's defense against an external attack. In the past, the Philippines has tried to clarify whether the treaty would apply if its forces come under attack in a disputed region like the South China Sea, where it has been locked in tense territorial conflicts with China and four other governments.

Pompeo assured the Philippines during his visit that America will come to its defense if its forces, aircraft or ships come under armed attack in the South China Sea, in the first such public U.S. assurance in recent memory.

The top American diplomat said the U.S. is committed to ensuring the South China Sea remains open to all kinds of navigation and that "China does not pose a threat" of closing the disputed sea lanes.

Lorenzana said U.S. forces, which have stepped up so-called freedom of navigation patrols in the strategic waterway, would more likely end up getting involved in an armed conflict than the Philippines, which he foresees would not engage any country in a war in the contested territories.

The territorial disputes are a key irritant between Washington and Beijing, which has turned several disputed barren reefs into islands with runways and other military facilities. The U.S. has declared that the peaceful resolution of the disputes is in the U.S. national interest.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the strategic waters. U.S. Navy ships have sailed close to Chinese-occupied islands to assert freedom of navigation, provoking angry protests from China.

A Section on 03/06/2019

Print Headline: Philippines fears mandate to join if U.S., China fight

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