The Philippines is counting on America to defend its territorial claims against China. This brings to mind the German army officer who, upon witnessing military maneuvers by his country’s principal ally, Austria-Hungary, remarked: “My god, we are allied with a corpse.”

The U.S.-Philippines relationship goes back more than a century. Washington acquired the islands as war booty after defeating Spain in 1898. But Filipino independence fighters were not about to accept a switch in colonial overlords easily, so three years of brutal guerrilla warfare ensued, in which at least 200,000 noncombatants died. Washington did not grant the territory formal independence until 1946, after reclaiming the islands from Imperial Japan.

The Philippines long has been the sick man of East Asia. Its democracy is almost feudal, with bouts of military interference. The Filipino economy, while growing, remains bureaucratic, inefficient, and corrupt. Manila’s military strength is marginal. Despite years of U.S. assistance to the government, Islamic insurgencies in the nation’s south continue to smolder.

Yet this spring the Philippines played a dangerous game with China over control of islands in the South China Sea. When eight Chinese fishing vessels entered disputed waters near Scarborough Shoal in April, Filipino warships attempted to arrest the crews. Beijing sent surveillance vessels in response, sparking a lengthy standoff.

Beijing suspended tours to the Philippines and slowed agriculture imports from the country. China Daily, an official mouthpiece, declared, “No matter how willing we are to discuss the issue, the current Philippine leadership is intent on pressing us into a corner where there is no option left but the use of arms.” A brief war scare erupted when rumors circulated of Chinese military mobilization.

Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the New York Times that his nation wanted a peaceful solution, but warned, “If the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty.” Manila eventually withdrew a couple of its ships, reducing tensions.

But the controversy runs deeper than a single confrontation over a fishing trip. Based on dubious historical grounds, Beijing has made extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea involving the Spratly and Paracel Islands, parts or all of which also are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In May, the PRC proclaimed a ban on fishing in the South China Sea, including the waters around Scarborough Shoal, and detained Vietnamese fishermen whom it accused of illegally fishing near the Paracel Islands.

Manila’s arguments for control of the region’s tiny islets are not much better than China’s: the Philippines did not formally claim Scarborough Shoal until 1978. Three years ago, Vietnam as well as China protested when the Philippines passed new legislation defining its maritime boundary to include the Spratlys.

The specks of land matter less than the fishing grounds and, more importantly, gas and oil deposits conferred by ownership of the islands. Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, notes in The Washington Quarterly, “Had the issue remained strictly a territorial one, it could have been resolved through Chinese efforts to reach out to ASEAN and forge stronger ties with the region.” But recently every claimant has been more inclined to assert sovereignty forcefully, with an eye to taking the underlying and surrounding resources.

It is in Washington’s interest to have friends rather than China—a growing geopolitical competitor—managing these new energy sources. Yet markets would prevail irrespective of ownership: even if the Philippines ended up in charge of the oil and gas deposits, Manila would sell to Americans only if they paid full price. At the margin, it is better that an American ally controls the resources, but the benefit isn’t substantial.

Yet Washington’s alliance with the Philippines could lead to a war with China. The U.S. risks being sucked into what Benjamin Carlson of the Global Post calls a “toxic brew of jingoism, nationalism, and disputed territory.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has even referred to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea, a name used only by Manila.

The Cold War relationship between America and the Philippines was close, but Subic Bay and Clark Airfield closed in 1992. A decade later President George W. Bush sent Special Forces, later backed by drones, to aid Manila’s long-raging battle against Muslim insurgents. Over the last decade, the U.S. has given Manila more than $500 million in aid, and this spring Washington promised to up military assistance for the year to $30 million, double what was initially planned. The Obama administration gave the Philippines a cutter last fall, plans to provide a second ship this fall, and has assisted Manila in developing its “Coast Watch” radar system. American and Filipino military forces regularly conduct joint war games, most recently in April.

Under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Manila, “Each Party recognizes an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” At the time, the U.S. was mostly concerned about the Soviet Union, while Manila worried more over a revived Japan.

China is ambitious but has demonstrated no interest in global military competition with America. Even in East Asia, Beijing seeks influence, not conquest. The PRC’s extensive claims at sea appear to be animated by a combination of nationalism and mercantilism, not colonialism. If Beijing’s pretensions seem excessive, so do those of its neighbors. And China appears no more desirous of war than anyone else.

So far Washington has avoided expressly backing Manila’s territorial claims. Even Walter Lohman of the hawkish Heritage Foundation admits, in a recent brief, “It would be folly for the U.S. to cast its support for the disputed territorial claims of any party, even that of an ally.”

When previously pressed by Manila, the U.S. indicated that its defense promise only extended to the original territory acquired from Spain. Nevertheless, Washington acts as enabler for the Philippines’ challenges to China. An April “Ministerial Dialogue” in Washington between Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and their Philippines counterparts—Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin—affirmed the two nations’ “shared obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty and our mutual commitment to the peace and security of the region,” without spelling out those duties.

Manila has taken an aggressive tack, asserting that America has an obligation to defend the Philippines regardless of how or why conflict breaks out. Agence France-Presse reports Gazmin as saying that the treaty covers “armed attack … [on] island territories in the Pacific.” And Gazmin interprets comments by Secretary Clinton on the Scarborough Shoal controversy—“We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims”—to mean that America’s guarantee would “cover our problem in the West Philippine Sea.” The Philippine Star reports that after visiting Washington in late May, Guzmin asserted, “Without a deterrent force, we can be easily pushed around.” But “now that we have a good neighbor on the block, we can no longer be bullied.”

The pact between the two countries explicitly covers any attack on Manila’s “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” In 1979, the Carter administration reaffirmed this commitment. While the defense treaty is not self-enforcing—each party merely promises to see such an attack as “dangerous to its own peace and safety” and pledges to “act to meet the common dangers”—U.S. credibility would be on the line in any military confrontation between Manila and Beijing.

Although Manila emphasizes that it isn’t considering reestablishing U.S. bases, del Rosario was quoted by Reuters as saying, “As part of building up our minimum credible defense posture, we would like the Americans to come more often.” Indeed, “Let’s have these joint training exercises more frequently and on a bigger scale. As many times as we can, in different places if we can, that’s the objective of the exercise.”

The Ministerial Dialogue reaffirmed last year’s Manila Declaration, which pledges both sides to “enhance the defense, interdiction, and apprehension capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.” But relying on Washington, the Philippines has shirked investing in its own forces. Manila’s military is small, its capabilities derisory. The Philippines’ defense priorities have always emphasized the army, given the country’s internal security problems. The navy and air force have languished for decades. The navy’s flagship is a 46-year-old American cast-off.

Defense spending is anemic, less than 1 percent of GDP. The International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that since America’s withdrawal from the country in 1992, “perennially low defense budgets have thwarted efforts to develop any significant capability for conventional warfighting or deterrence.” President Aquino’s promise to strengthen the military has so far yielded no results. Naturally, the Philippines wants America to provide more equipment, including aircraft. Manila also has been panhandling for aid among Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

Unfortunately, U.S. charity only reduces the pressure on the Philippines to adopt serious reforms and contribute substantial resources to its own defense. After another Filipino-Chinese naval confrontation last year, President Aquino promised the military an extra $255 million. But even that amount won’t go very far in creating an effective navy and air force.

Washington should not readopt the Philippines as a client state. America’s principal interest in the South China Sea is maintaining freedom of navigation. Washington can firmly assert free-transit rights in bilateral discussions and international forums, and through U.S. naval movements. Washington should indeed work with the Philippines and its neighbors to keep the sea lanes free: India, too, has reason to cooperate with America in this regard. New Delhi has rejected expansive Chinese territorial claims, plans to help train Vietnamese submariners, and is involved in Vietnamese energy exploration near the Paracel Islands. Manila ought to be working more closely with these neighbors as well.

As long as free transit is protected, which country owns particular islands and shards of land is of little consequence to America. The dueling claims in the South China Sea risk inadvertent conflict: everyone is throwing sharp elbows hoping everyone else will back away. Chinese and Japanese vessels already have had physical contact. Worse may follow from bad or inadequate instructions to individual ship captains.

Washington might hope to deter Chinese adventurism by sprinkling security guarantees throughout the region. But Manila’s confidence that the U.S. will ride to its rescue only makes the Philippines’ government more likely to take risks. Similar behavior has been seen from Chen Shui-bian’s Taiwan and Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia, two states that in recent years provoked China and Russia, respectively, in expectation of American support. In the South China Sea, the result threatens to be a cycle toward war: the Philippines acts aggressively, Beijing responds with greater force to dissuade U.S. involvement, Washington then feels pressure to intervene lest its credibility suffer.

And territorial disputes in the region will only be harder to resolve if they are tied to other U.S.-China disagreements. If the South China Sea becomes an integral part of the strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, the PRC will fear that a reasonable settlement with individual nations or ASEAN could be perceived as a U.S. victory. China may instead decide that it must accompany its expanding naval capabilities and deployments with more assertive territorial claims and foreign-policy objectives as a test of American power and resolve.

The most effective means to increase China’s willingness to negotiate is for the Philippines and other interested states to strengthen their own military capabilities and political cooperation with one another. Filipino economic growth appears to be accelerating, which will provide greater resources for the military, but Manila needs an incentive to invest more significantly in defense. Most of the other countries interested in the South China Sea—India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea—are buying submarines and other weapons. Although none of these nations wants to take on China alone, collectively they could constrain Beijing’s claims.

But that won’t happen if the U.S. continues to relieve friends like the Philippines of responsibility for their own defense. The worst policy for Washington would be, like Wilhelmine Germany, to ally with a geopolitical corpse. Washington should not give Manila the power to drag America to the brink of war with China.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.