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Why the Philippines Picked America Over China

In this photo provided by the Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, does a fist bump with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, July 29, 2021.
In this photo provided by the Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, does a fist bump with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, July 29, 2021.

The Philippine government’s decision to restore its Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. military after 18 months of threats to scrap it shows that Beijing had not delivered enough to the Southeast Asian country to sustain a friendship or excite common Filipinos, analysts say.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced July 29 during U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila that he would continue the 22-year-old pact, commonly known as the VFA. Duterte had said since February 2020 that he planned to quit the deal.

Duterte, who took office in 2016, had come to realize that China would not deliver on pledges made that year of $33 billion in aid and investment in the fast-growing, infrastructure-thirsty Southeast Asian archipelago, experts say.

A flap in March and April over 220 Chinese boats moored off a reef that’s disputed by the two countries further upset officials in Manila, reminding them of a broader maritime sovereignty dispute with Beijing, analysts say.

“Had China delivered more on its promises of infrastructure and investment, it could have given Duterte a more solid ground and a solid push to stay adamant on the VFA,” said Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “It is widely observed that the Chinese promises never really transpired for Duterte.”

Just $4.7 billion of China’s pledges had reached Manila by early 2019, local media said that year.

The Visiting Forces Agreement provides for arms sales, intelligence exchanges and discussions on military cooperation. It allows U.S. troops access to Philippine soil for military exercises aimed at regional security and local humanitarian work. Those measures bolster a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.

The United States had governed the Philippines for more than five decades before granting its independence after World War II. For Washington today, the Philippines represents one in a chain of Western Pacific allies that can work together to check Chinese maritime expansion.

Duterte probably agreed to keep the military pact in view of the early 2022 presidential election, Sun said. He’s allowed just one six-year term in office, but domestic media reports say his daughter Sara Duterte wants to run for the office. Most Filipinos, including the armed forces, prefer the United States over China, Quezon City-based research organization Social Weather Stations has said, based on opinion polls since 2016.

“I suspect his chief motivation in making peace with Washington, on his way out of office, is to cover himself politically at home should he ever want to run for anything again,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

Duterte, a long-time anti-U.S. firebrand, ordered an end to the military deal after the U.S. government canceled a visa for a Filipino senator and former police chief who was instrumental in a deadly anti-drug campaign that generated outrage abroad. Last year, Duterte indicated he favored relations with China and Russia.

Sino-Philippine relations today hinge largely on competing claims in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is rich in fisheries and undersea energy reserves. China has alarmed the Philippines among other Southeast Asian maritime claimant states over the past decade by landfilling islets for military installations.

The Sino-Philippine dispute eased in 2016 after Manila won a world arbitral court ruling against Beijing’s maritime claims and Duterte pursued a new friendship with China.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government approached Washington about renegotiating terms of the VFA. Officials in Manila wanted the pact to guarantee U.S. help in defending Philippine maritime claims, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. U.S. officials since the presidency of Barack Obama have made verbal commitments only, Araral said.

“They always make assurances, but those assurances are not credible because they are not written in the VFA,” he said. “There’s got to be some clarity in the wording of the VFA itself.”

The two sides did not indicate last week whether the agreement would be renegotiated.

Chinese media, which had covered the U.S.-Philippine pact’s pending termination, have gone mostly quiet since July 29, Sun said. The official Xinhua news agency reported the VFA reapproval last month and noted that Manila's plan to cancel it had been suspended three times.

Beijing is disappointed now, Sun said, as it was trying to “drive a wedge” between the United States and its allies.

Duterte’s salvaging of the agreement will help Washington coordinate allies in Asia, King said.

“Keeping the Visiting Forces Agreement in place, along with re-upping U.S. defense burden-sharing deals with South Korea and Japan earlier this year, gives the sense that U.S. President (Joe) Biden is getting America’s friends and allies onside as we (U.S.) square off with Beijing for influence and position in the region,” King said.