The Philippines

U.S. & The Philippines: Parting ways

Print edition : March 13, 2020

President Donald Trump with President Rodrigo Duterte at the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, on November 13, 2017. Photo: REUTERS

This photograph taken on April 20, 2015, shows Philippine and U.S. Army soldiers during an air assault exercise inside the military training camp at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province. Photo: TED ALJIBE/AFP

Teodoro Locsin, Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Photo: WILLY KURNIAWAN/REUTERS

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines terminates the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. in what is perceived as part of his government’s moves to establish closer ties with China.

ONE of President Rodrigo Duterte’s stated goals since coming to power in 2016 has been to distance the Philippines from the tight political and military embrace of the United States, the former colonial power. His immediate predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had forged a particularly close relationship with the U.S. as the Barack Obama administration launched its military “pivot to the East”. The Philippines at the time was also playing a leading and vocal role in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Encouraged by the Obama administration, the Philippines had taken the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where it got a favourable ruling, which dismissed much of China’s claims to the South China Sea. But Duterte, after taking over as President, decided to put the territorial dispute on the back burner, indicating that he preferred a negotiated settlement to the South China Sea dispute. He said that implementing the ICJ’s decision would have meant getting sucked into “an unwinnable war” with China. Under Duterte, bilateral ties with China have flourished, with Beijing investing in many multibillion-dollar developmental projects. At the same time, Duterte, despite his periodic anti-American rhetoric, was careful to maintain the strong military links between the two countries. However, in the second week of February, he surprised the U.S. and even some of his domestic political allies by announcing that he had decided to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries.

The military pact, signed in 1998, allowed the U.S. Army to rotate its forces in Filipino military bases. The two countries used to hold more than 300 annual joint military exercises. The announcement by the Philippine President was followed by an official notice of termination issued by the Filipino government on February 10. The military pact will lapse after 180 days, the mandatory notice period that was agreed on by both sides when the deal was first initialled.

After Duterte was elected to office, Filipino officials started talking about the need to review the “Mutual Defence Treaty” the two countries had signed at the height of the Cold War 69 years ago. The Philippines Secretary of National Defence, Delfin Lorenzana, stated in March last year that the security environment in the region had become “much more complex” since then. “The Philippines is not in conflict with anyone and will not be in war with anyone in the near future,” he said.

After Donald Trump became President, the U.S. started conducting more military exercises and joint patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Philippine government under Duterte made it clear that it did not want to get involved if trouble broke out between the U.S. and China in its neighbourhood. Lorenzana warned that there was a likelihood of “a shooting war” erupting because of the increasing frequency of U.S. naval ships passing through the disputed waters.

Ban and after

Duterte, who had been threatening to scrap the VFA as he moved closer to Beijing and Moscow, finally bit the bullet after the U.S. imposed a travel ban on some of his closest advisers for alleged human rights violations. Among the senior Filipinos affected by the ban is Senator Bato Dela Rosa, who was earlier in charge of Duterte’s controversial “war on drugs”, which human rights activists claim has come at a cost of more than a thousand encounter killings.

In response to the ban, Duterte also announced that he had advised his senior officials to “boycott” the U.S. and desist from travelling to the country. Only the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was exempted from the ban. Duterte said he was “toning” down relations with the U.S. and revealed that he had turned down an invitation to attend a U.S.-ASEAN summit meeting to be hosted by Donald Trump in the first week of March. He said his decision was based on “geopolitical and strategic considerations”.

The scrapping of the VFA has also put another complementary military treaty, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), in peril. The EDCA, signed in 2014, provided U.S. troops unfettered access to Philippine military facilities and allowed them to pre-position defence equipment in the country. Under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty, it would have been mandatory for the Philippine Army to fight alongside the U.S. Army in the eventuality of hostilities breaking out.

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, during a visit to Manila last year, reasserted this position, giving the impression that he was blissfully unaware of the current government’s fear of getting entangled in a war instigated by the U.S. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels will trigger mutual defence obligations,” Pompeo stated. The Secretary of National Defence said that his government doubted the U.S.’ sincerity in its commitment to its country. “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me,” Lorenzana said. “It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.”

The termination of the VFA in a way has made the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty irrelevant. A leading member of Duterte’s Cabinet, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, said that the withdrawal from the VFA had made the Mutual Defence Treaty “a hollow agreement”. The decision by the Philippines President also took many of his Cabinet Ministers and the leadership of the country’s armed forces by surprise. Many in the top echelons of the Philippine political and security establishment, like their counterparts in India, have been strong votaries of military engagement with the U.S.

The Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teodoro Locsin, said in January that the continuance of the military agreement with the U.S. would “be more beneficial” for the country compared with any benefits that could accrue if it was to be terminated. The Filipino elite believe that they owe a debt of gratitude to the U.S. It was U.S. military help that staved off a left-wing revolution in the country in the early 1950s. The Philippines was among the first Asian countries to join U.S.-led military alliances such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) at the height of the Cold War.

After the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, mass protests forced the eviction of U.S. forces from their two biggest military bases in the Philippines, the Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base, in 1991. Within a decade after that, the U.S. military made a comeback with the signing of the VFA.

The U.S. military helped the Philippine Army defeat armed Islamic insurgents in Marawi city on the island of Mindanao in 2017. U.S. Special Forces and surveillance drones were deployed in the siege of Marawi, which lasted a few months. The U.S. also lent a helping hand in the fight against the Moro insurgency which erupted in the 1970s in the south of the country. The Philippine Secretary of National Defence was apparently not in favour of terminating the VFA. He told the Philippine Senate last year that the VFA assured critical help to the country in times of crisis. Lorenzana said that the VFA had facilitated the transfer of $1.3 billion in military assistance to the Philippines.

Some of Duterte’s closest political allies have started questioning openly his decision to terminate the VFA. There are rumours being spread in the Philippine media that the Army’s top brass is so angry with the decision that they are even contemplating a military coup. The head of the Philippine Armed Forces, Gen. Felimon Santos. Jr., said that the VFA’s abrogation would adversely impact military cooperation with the U.S. He warned that many of the joint exercises and war games planned with the U.S. Army in 2020 could be called off by Washington. The Navy chief, Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad, has defiantly stated that his forces will continue with the joint exercises with the U.S. Navy. Sections of the Philippine Army are known to be trigger-happy and have made abortive attempts at overthrowing popularly elected governments in the past.

After Duterte announced the termination of the VFA, President Trump said he was not too concerned by the move. He said that he was okay with the decision as “we’ll save a lot of money”. At the same time, he insisted that he shared “a very good relationship” with his Philippine counterpart. Duterte said that Trump wanted to save the defence deal but had told the U.S. President that he did not want to do so for a number of reasons. “One is that the Americans are very ill-mannered,” he said.

Duterte stressed that the U.S. got a better deal out of the arrangement, pointing out that after large-scale joint military exercises, they did not leave any of their weaponry behind for the use of the Philippine Army. Duterte accused the U.S. of treating the Philippines “like a dog on a leash” and dismissed claims that the U.S. forces were acting as a deterrent to China. He accused the Pentagon of secretly keeping nuclear weapons on Philippine territory.

“It is about time that we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defences and not rely on other countries,” the President told his Cabinet Ministers. Duterte said that the Chinese military posed no threat to the security of his country. “They do not mean harm” as long as “we do not also do something that is harmful to them”, he said.

However, the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Political/Military Affairs, R. Clarke Cooper, said that the move would jeopardise continued military cooperation between the two countries. The U.S. Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, said the move by the Philippines would have a significant negative impact on bilateral strategic ties. Esper said the decision would send the wrong signal to other allies of the U.S. in the region who were telling the Chinese government “to obey international rules of order”. He was alluding to the South China Sea territorial dispute in which countries such as India and Vietnam are openly siding with the U.S.

Under the pretext of exercising the “freedom of navigation” rules, the U.S. has been sending its warships and conducting joint military exercises with its allies in the South China Sea. “Terminating the VFA will negatively impact Philippine defence and security arrangements as well as overall bilateral relations with the U.S. and perhaps even at a subregional and multilateral level,” Esper warned.