The Philippines, an old American ally in Asia, is changing its view on whether to scrap a key U.S. military pact, as it explores new ways of benefiting from U.S. defense aid without isolating its newer superpower friend, China, analysts and officials say.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte this month announced that cancelling the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) would be suspended for another six months, which lets U.S. troops access Philippine soil for military exercises aimed at regional security as well as local humanitarian work. Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Thursday that in six more months “we will know” the president’s decision.
The first suspension was announced in June, four months after Manila said it would fully withdraw from the 21-year-old pact.
Duterte hopes the suspensions will prompt the United States – which wants to keep the agreement so its military personnel can easily reach Asia – renegotiate the two-way defense relationship with a focus not just on warding off China but also on quelling armed rebels at home, analysts believe.
Shortly after taking office in 2016, the leader surprised his citizens by seeking a friendship with China despite a maritime sovereignty dispute that shook the two sides from 2012 to 2016. That year, a world court said Chinese claims in the contested waterway, the South China Sea, were illegal.
The Philippines president has expressed anti-American views while in office, but domestic opinion polls show that much of the public still favors close ties with Washington. Duterte’s government has acknowledged this year that China remains a threat at sea despite Chinese economic aid offered since 2016.
“For the Duterte government’s perspective, there’s too much focus from the United States on U.S.-China great power competition and arming the Philippines to deal with China, rather than arming the Philippines so that the Philippines can do other missions as well,” said Derek Grossman, senior analyst with the U.S.-based Rand Corp. research institution.
“By delaying the VFA further, they are keeping the agreement intact but also putting some pressure on negotiators to come up with a better deal,” he said.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. sent in February a "notice of termination" of the Visiting Forces Agreement to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, following through on an order from Duterte. He hinted later that the president was having a rethink.
“Why did he change his mind? A man who does not change his mind cannot change anything,” Locsin tweeted June 3 in announcing the first suspension. “And he ran on the slogan: Change is coming.”
Washington and Manila separately signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951. The Visiting Forces Agreement is seen as a way to execute the 1951 deal through arms sales, exchanges of intelligence and new discussions on military cooperation.
Duterte probably hopes the government of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will renegotiate military ties so the Philippines can tone down maritime defenses against China and instead focus on anti-terrorism campaigns around the restive southern Philippine island Mindanao, experts say. Expect more suspensions of the VFA cancellation, they add.
“It’s going to be like this until the two sides really find an agreement to better the alliance based on mutually acceptable terms,” said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.
About 20 Muslim rebel groups operate in Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu Sea. Mindanao is a stronghold too for the Philippine communist party’s armed front.
Duterte ultimately wants a superpower-neutral foreign policy like those crafted by Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, some experts say.
The United States had governed the Philippines for more than five decades before granting it independence after World War II. For Washington today, the Philippines represents one in a Western Pacific chain of political allies that work together as needed to stop Chinese maritime expansion.
Beijing resents U.S. military activity near the resource-laden, 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea. China, better armed than any other country in East Asia, calls 90% of the sea its own despite protests from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
“The Philippines will be friends with both sides, but it will not be taken for a ride and I think the six-month, short-term leash is also seen in the context that the Philippines and the U.S. [are] still discussing revisions of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.
Duterte’s government values its U.S. ties as well as others, Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippines ambassador to the United States, said November 18 in a videoconference with the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
“It’s not fair to say Duterte is really just cozying up to China and it’s a zero-sum game,” the ambassador said. “We would like to have relations with all countries. We feel that our interests will be best protected by reaching out to major countries like China and even Russia to do what is best for our country.”