Filipino leader scraps key bilateral security pact that US leverages to check China in the South China Sea
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has effectively ended his country’s century-old alliance with the United States, a shock move that will have ramifications for the region’s strategic balance of power including in the hotly contested South China Sea.
The Philippines gave the US official notice on Monday (February 11) that it will abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a security pact that allows for the US to station troops on a rotational basis on Philippine soil and provides legal basis for hundreds of annual joint military exercises and activities.
Duterte opted to circumvent an anticipated formal multi-agency review of the VFA, surprising many of his top officials and political allies by his sudden executive decision to immediately scrap the pact.
The tough-talking Filipino leader had earlier threatened to nix the VFA in retaliation for US travel bans imposed on members of his inner circle for alleged human rights violations, including in the prosecution of his bloody war on drugs campaign.
The Presidential Palace, known as Malacañang, however, said the president’s abrogation decision was not made on a whim and was well-studied in advance.
“The termination of the VFA will make the [Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement] practically useless and the [1951 Mutual Defense Treaty] a hollow agreement,” said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, a member of the Presidential Commission on the VFA, on February 12.
The latter agreement requires the US and Philippines to come to one another’s defense in the case of a conflict or attack on sovereign territory. The Philippines sent the notice of termination of the VFA to the US on February 11. The agreement will formally lapse after a 180-day period.
US President Donald Trump, for his part, dismissed concerns about the move. “If they would like to do that, that’s fine, we’ll save a lot of money,” Trump told reporters at the White House on February 12 while touting his “very good relationship” with Duterte.
China, currently locked in a contest with the US for power and control over the nearby South China Sea, is expected to be among the biggest beneficiaries of Duterte’s decision to part strategic ways with the US.
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo announced on February 11 that the US Embassy in Manila has received the formal notice of termination.
“As the president said, it’s about time we rely on our own resources,” Panelo said at a news conference. “We have to strengthen our own capability as a country relative to the defense of our land.”
Duterte’s abrupt move will no doubt have come as a surprise to the US. Earlier there was hope in Washington that the Philippine defense establishment, together with other top supporters of the US alliance, would through collective pressure stave off his earlier abrogation threat.
“The continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any benefits were it to be terminated,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said earlier this month in reference to the VFA.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, long seen as a bastion of relative independence and Sino-skepticism inside the military establishment, emphasized during a Senate hearing last year how the VFA facilitated critical US assistance during times of crisis.
Recalling the Haiyan typhoon disaster in 2013, when the US dispatched nearly 8,000 troops to assist affected communities in central Philippines, Lorenzana said America’s deployment of naval and aerial assets was a crisis game-changer.
“The US forces are always there in times of calamities. The troops deployed in Okinawa [Japan] are ready to help us anytime,” he added.
The Philippine defense chief, formerly a defense attaché in Washington DC, also noted that over the past two decades the VFA has facilitated around US$1.3 billion in strategic assistance, including the biggest American regional defense aid pacakge of $219 million in 2017.
Lorenzana had previously publicly thanked the US for providing critical counterterrorism assistance, including deployment of Special Forces and surveillance drones during the the 2017 months-long siege of Marawi city by ISIS-affiliated terror groups.
He has also noted how US assistance, including its constant surveillance operations, has been crucial to preventing Chinese reclamation activities at the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which lies a mere 100 nautical miles from critical strategic bases in Subic and Clark.
Even Duterte’s key congressional allies are up in arms over his surprise move and are insisting that the earlier promised review goes ahead.
“We must have a say on this important matter,” said Senator Richard Gordon, among Duterte’s staunchest allies. Senator
Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate defense committee and a leading independent statesman, criticized the decision as effectively paralyzing the country’s defense alliance with the US.
“What is certain is that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty will now be reduced to a mere paper treaty as far as the US is concerned,” he added.
More ominously, there are signs of deep anxiety and discontent among the Philippine top brass, giving momentum to unsubstantiated rumors spread over social media and elsewhere of a potential coup.
Top brass officials say the country will now be more exposed to a range of strategic threats, from an emboldened China unencumbered by a US forward deployment presence near the South China Sea, to a potential resurgence of ISIS-affiliated groups on the southern island of Mindanao.
During his confirmation hearing at the Commission on Appointments’ committee on national defense on February 12, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Felimon Santos Jr said that the VFA’s abrogation will hurt US defense cooperation.
He warned that as many as half of 318 planned joint military activities with the US, including 10 major joint exercises and war games, could be cancelled in 2020. “Those [activities] ongoing will push through unless the other side [the US] canceled it,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while in Brussels for a NATO meeting, said the abrogation will have a significant and negative impact on bilateral strategic ties.
“We have to digest it. We have to work through the policy angles, the military angles. I’m going to hear from my commanders. But … in my view, it’s unfortunate that they would make this move,” Esper said on February 11.
Esper said he viewed the abrogation as a move “in the wrong direction as we both bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region are trying to say to the Chinese: ‘You must obey the international rules of order’.”
“Terminating the VFA will negatively impact Philippine defense and security arrangements as well as the overall bilateral relations with the US and perhaps even at the sub-regional and multilateral level,” the US defense chief said.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, having taught political science at Ateneo De Manila University and De La Salle University, Philippines. He is a regular contributor to Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
(Comment. Our White Man’s Media was so engrossed in the Democratic Primary in the US that most ignored this major story in our region. John Menadue)