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 be embroiled in such a conflict just the same because of its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington, the Philippine defence chief said Tuesday. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the treaty needed to be re-examined to clear ambiguities that could cause chaos and confusion during a crisis. He cited the aggressive seizure of a Philippine-claimed reef by China in the mid-1990s, saying “the US did not stop it”. Lorenzana said US 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 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 in a statement, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea. “In such a case and on the basis of the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Philippines will be automatically involved,” Lorenzana said. “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.” US promises to defend the Philippines in South China Sea The Philippine proposal for the treaty’s review was among the key topics when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met President Rodrigo Duterte and other officials during a visit to Manila last week. The treaty behind one of the longest-standing security alliances in Asia calls on the US and the Philippines to come to each other’s defence 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 the US would come to its defence if its forces, aircraft or ships came under armed attack in the South China Sea, in the first such public US assurance in recent memory. The long-seething 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 US has declared that the peaceful resolution of the disputes and freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested areas are in the US national interest. In addition to China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the strategic waters. US Navy ships have sailed close to Chinese-occupied islands to assert freedom of navigation, provoking angry protests from China and tense moments between the rival naval forces. Respect Chinese sovereignty in South China Sea, Beijing warns Washington While Lorenzana and other Philippine officials wanted clarity in the treaty, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr differed. “In vagueness lies the best deterrence,” Locsin said in a news conference with Pompeo in Manila on Friday. Lorenzana said Tuesday that the treaty would have been reviewed as far back as 1992, when huge US military bases were closed in the country and the Philippines lost its security umbrella. US commander pushes for more funding to counter China’s influence in Indo-Pacific A few years after US forces left, the Chinese began their aggressive actions in Mischief Reef – “not an armed attack but it was aggression just the same. The US did not stop it”, Lorenzana said. Lorenzana was referring to the Philippine-claimed reef in the South China Sea which China seized around 1995. It’s one of seven contested reefs that China has turned into islands installed with a missile defence systems in the Spratlys, the most hotly-disputed region, which straddles busy sea lanes.