The Philippines says it has fully restored a major security agreement with the United States, with President Rodrigo Duterte retracting his intention to terminate the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) late Thursday.
Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana told reporters at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Friday that Duterte, after his meeting with Austin, retracted the VFA termination letter sent to the U.S. last year.
“This provides us some degree of certainty going forward, so we can plan further in advance,” Austin told reporters. “And with that long-range planning, we can actually do more comprehensive exercises.”
Secretary Lorenzana said he was unsure why Duterte had reversed the decision, but he welcomed the president's move.
The 1998 agreement provides legal permission for thousands of U.S. troops who rotate into the Philippines for dozens of military and humanitarian assistance exercises each year.
Duterte gave formal notice to the United States of his decision to scrap the VFA in February 2020 after repeated threats to downgrade the two countries' military alliance. He later extended the VFA until December 2021.
At the time of the termination notice, Duterte had indicated that he favored relations with China and Russia over ties with the U.S. His spokesman said the reason for terminating the VFA was to allow the Philippines military to be more independent.
Analysts say access to the Philippines puts the U.S. in a position to rapidly respond to threats from China in the South China Sea. They say it also bolsters U.S. counterterror and intelligence gathering in the region.
Austin said Beijing’s claim to the majority of the South China Sea encroaches on the sovereignty and basic rights afforded to Southeast Asian nations by international law.
Chinese ships are accused of harassing fishermen inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the sea and oil and gas developers off the coasts of Malaysia and Vietnam, hindering their energy development.
Despite the territorial claims of other nations, China has created hundreds of hectares of artificial islands in the resource-rich sea to bolster its claims.
The VFA will also allow U.S. to continue to assist in counter terror efforts in the country’s south, where ISIS-affiliated militants are active. U.S. officials told VOA there are hundreds of radicalized Islamic militants in the Philippines.
On Friday, Austin said, "A strong, resilient U.S.-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific," adding, "A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together."
Before leaving the Philippines, Austin watched as John Lock - the U.S. Charge d'affairs- and Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin signed an agreement on maritime search and rescue (AMSAR) at the Department of Foreign Affairs. Afterwards, Austin had a brief meeting with Locsin.