BRUSSELS/WHITE HOUSE — U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says dissolving the bilateral agreement with the Philippines that covers visiting U.S. military forces there "would be a move in the wrong direction."
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte gave formal notice to the United States of his decision to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) late Monday after repeated threats to downgrade the two countries' military alliance. 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.
"We just got the notification late last night. We have to digest it," Esper told reporters on route to a NATO conference in Brussels.
The U.S. defense secretary said the move, set to take effect in 180 days, runs counter to bilateral efforts with the Philippines and collective efforts with regional allies to push China toward abiding by international norms in the region.
"As we try to bolster our presence and compete with (China) in this era of great-power competition, I think it's a move in the wrong direction, again for the long-standing relationship we've had with the Philippines, for their strategic location, for the ties between our peoples and our countries," Esper said.
A senior Trump administration official echoed Esper's remarks.
"We are disappointed by the decision of the government of the Philippines," the official said in a statement Tuesday.
"The United States shares a long history with the government and people of the Philippines and recognizes that regional and global security is best served through the strong partnership that is enabled by the Visiting Forces Agreement," the official added. "We will continue to work with our Philippine government partners to strengthen this relationship in a way that benefits both our countries."
Duterte has indicated that he favors relations with China and Russia over ties with the U.S. His spokesman said Tuesday the reason for terminating the VFA was to allow the Philippines military to be more independent.
"I don't think it's necessarily tied to China. As you know, it's tied to some other issues," Esper told reporters. "So again, I'm going to take this one step at a time. I don't get too excited about these things."
The move also comes after the top commander in Duterte's war on drugs, former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, said his U.S. visa was rescinded following the detention of a senator critical of Duterte.
U.S. credibility in the region
One of the U.S.'s oldest allies walking away from a security pact would be a serious blow to U.S. credibility as a regional security provider, said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If the VFA termination is implemented, it would allow the Philippine president to "effectively undermine the credibility of the U.S. commitment to defend the Philippines, furthering his goal," Poling said.
The VFA termination would effectively do away with the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines and render the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries largely hollow.
The VFA is the "nuts and bolts of the Mutual Defense Treaty" and meant to help defend the Philippines against attacks, said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the RAND
"By not having the ability for U.S. troops to move freely into the Philippines, to operate there and to move military equipment into the Philippines makes it much more difficult for the U.S. to make good on its obligations under the mutual defense treaty," Grossman added.
Analysts say without access to the Philippines, the U.S. will not be in a position to rapidly respond to threats from China in the South China Sea. They say it will also weaken U.S. counterterror and intelligence gathering in the region, and undermine the ability to protect freedom of the seas and contest Chinese coercion in the South China Sea.
The notice to terminate the decades-old military pact with Washington may be a bargaining strategy from the Duterte administration.
Malacañang spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that after the VFA termination notice, the U.S.-Philippines relations "remains warm" and that "hopefully, it would be warmer."
"I've been noticing that those who've been criticizing the U.S. government policies have been given the preferential attention by the U.S. government," Panelo said. "When they are being criticized, they tend to court you back."
A lot can happen before it expires, said defense analyst Grossman, adding that he would not be surprised if Trump and Duterte would soon take steps to reconcile the matter.
In a speech late Monday, the Philippine president said Trump had tried to save the agreement but that he had rejected it.
"America is very rude. They are so rude," he said.
Trump has invited Duterte and other Association of South East Asian Nation leaders to attend the US-ASEAN summit to be held in Las Vegas this March. Duterte has said that he will not attend.
Steve Miller contributed to this report.