The Philippines has applied brakes on its plan to end a critical defence pact with the US. When President Duterte suddenly announced to cancel the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) a move didn’t go well with the country’s defence establishment and Duterte was forced to suspend the unilateral decision.
The Philippines-US VFA is a bilateral agreement which allows the US troops to visit the Philippines and conduct joint military exercises and operations in the region. The Philippine Senate ratified the VFA in 1999 but in February 2020, President Duterte announced the termination of the defence pact which allowed military and humanitarian cooperation between the two nations.
“No more [American] bases” in the Philippines, Duterte directed. “They have to start to talk to us because they have to go.” He also called on the U.S. to “correct” travel bans and sanctions imposed on his inner circle.
After an announcement to terminate the agreement, the order comes into effect after 180 days which allows for a dialogue between the two nations. The US government refused to agree to President Duterte’s suggested “correction”.
Last week, a formal letter by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs indicated “political and other developments in the region” for suspension of the termination order previously announced by the President.
According to Richard Heydarian, an Asia-based academic, columnist and author, the first thing this change of heart highlights the Philippines’ growing anxieties over China’s strategic opportunism in the South China Sea during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created a dangerous security vacuum in Asia. “China’s expansionism has been creeping as its rivals struggle to contain coronavirus outbreaks,” he added.
Filipino President has long been accused of being a Chinese puppet. This decision to terminate the VFA saw an internal pushback and was even challenged in the Supreme Court. Since the VFA had been ratified by the legislative upper house, the senators argued that its cancellation would require its agreement.
The People’s Liberation Army has been ramping up its military operations in the South China Sea which has threatened its South Asian neighbours. “China may have further spooked its neighbours when a source within its Army suggested that it may soon impose an Air Defense Identification Zone across disputed waters to monitor and even restrict international navigation and overflight,” observed Heydarian.
“The crucial thing that the reversal reflects is Duterte’s growing strategic maturity, namely his reluctant recognition of the importance of security assistance from the U.S,” said Heydarian. He further added that Duterte’s about-face reveals the U.S.’s enduring influence in a region where China’s rising assertiveness has alienated smaller powers.
The humanitarian assistance by the US was particularly seen during the 2013 Haiyan superstorm that hit the Philippines. It displaced more than 14 million people with over 6000 deaths. Thousands of American soldiers were deployed to assist communities across the central Philippines.
“Now that the pandemic is devastating, the Philippine economy and threatening both public health and humanitarian crisis, Duterte has opted to lean on long-standing allies such as the U.S,” said Heydarian.
He concluded with saying that this episode contradicts the long-running accusations that the Filipino leader is nothing but a Chinese puppet. “Duterte may say that he “loves” China, but even the proud populist had to recognize how he needs American military assistance more than ever,” he added.