'I announce my separation from the United States,’ thundered Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during his first state visit to China. Three years later, true to his words, the Beijing-friendly Filipino leader has effectively ended the Southeast Asian country’s century-old alliance with the US.
To the shock and dismay of even his closest allies, Duterte unilaterally abrogated the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which has operated as the software of the bilateral alliance since the end of Cold War. Since 1999, the agreement has provided the legal regime, which governs the annual entry, exits, and rotational stationing of thousands of American troops on Philippine soil.
Without the VFA, the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is, according to a Philippine cabinet member, “practically useless”. Even more shocking was the response by US President Donald Trump, who nonchalantly declared that he is “fine” with the decision since it would save America “a lot of money”.
While Duterte has defended the decision as part of his ‘independent’ foreign policy lurch, there are fears of greater Philippine exposure to a whole host of strategic threats, especially transnational jihadist groups as well as extreme weather conditions, which have ravaged the country in recent decades. Moreover, any disruption to the Philippine-US alliance strengthens the hands of China, which has opposed expanding American military footprint in its adjacent waters and near neighborhood.
A History of Grievances
To understand the magnitude of Duterte’s latest decision, one must look at the deep history, which underpins bilateral security relations with Washington. Following the Second World War, when the two allies jointly fought against Imperial Japan, the US maintained a significant military presence on Philippine soil.
This was accomplished through a series of crucial agreements, namely the Military Bases Agreement (1947), the Military Assistance Pact (1947), and the Mutual Defense Treaty (1951). During the Cold War, the Philippines hosted America’s largest overseas military bases in Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, ignited a nationalist resurgence in the Philippines as well as a quest for a ‘peace dividend’ in Washington. The upshot was the ejection of American bases in 1992, with the Philippine Supreme Court later baring permanent foreign military presence in the country.
Soon, however, it became clear that the Philippines was ill-prepared to face external security threats, which were largely outsourced to America in preceding decades. The expansion of Al-Qaeda’s presence in the southern Philippines, as well as rising maritime tensions with China in the South China Sea, compelled Manila to invite American soldiers back to the country. The ensuing negotiations culminated in the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and, more than 15 years later, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (2014), which aimed to bolster American military presence on Philippine soil short of establishing permanent bases.
A fiery local government official, however, took exception to this development. As the decades-long mayor of Davao, the largest city on the southern island of Mindanao, Duterte was no fan of American military presence in the country.
Ideologically, he was deeply influenced by his former mentor and political theory professor, Jose Maria Sison, who happens to be the founder of modern communist movement in the Philippines. He also maintained an age-old friendship with one of the country’s leading Filipino-Muslim nationalists, Nur Misuari, who has resented the intrusion of Western powers into the Muslim-majority regions.
Politically, Duterte also opposed the growing American military footprint in Mindanao, especially during the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, which reduced much of the southern Philippines into a new battlefield.
An Ugly Divorce
As a mayor, Duterte became the first and only prominent Filipino official to block American military exercises and access to a major city. Once he became the Philippine president, the bilateral alliance with America became increasingly untenable.
Things came to head earlier this year when it became clear that a top Duterte ally, former police chief and current senator Ronald dela Rosa, faced a travel ban by US authorities. Though the US State Department didn’t provide an explanation for such actions, it’s widely believed that human rights concerns were a central factor.
Dela Rosa oversaw the bloodiest days of Duterte’s drug war, which has reportedly claimed the lives of tens of thousands of suspected drug dealers. Other top law enforcement officials have also reportedly met the same fate. Under the Magnitsky Law, the US has imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against a number of officials across the world.
Moreover, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which calls on the US government to promote “human rights and respect for democratic values in the Indo-Pacific region”, has zeroed in on “disturbing reports of extrajudicial killings” in the Philippines under Duterte.
As a result, top Filipino officials, if not Duterte himself, could face a wide set of sanctions for their human rights record, including from other major Western countries. Initially, Duterte offered Americans (in vain) a quid pro quo: “Now they won’t let [Dela Rosa] go to America. I am warning you … if you don’t do the correction there. One, I will terminate the bases, Visiting Forces Agreement.”
Just short of allowing for permanent stationing, the VFA has facilitated large-scale American assistance during moments of crisis, most recently the siege of Marawi by Islamic extremists in 2017. The VFA has also been crucial to the Pentagon’s push for greater access to strategic bases in the Philippines, including those close to the Chinese-claimed Scarborough Shoal (Basa Airbase) and Spratlys (Bautista Airbase).
Also important to consider are the hundreds of annual joint military exercises that were once jointly conducted between the two nations. With the VFA’s abrogation, more than half of 318 joint military activities scheduled this year between Philippine and American soldiers are in jeopardy.
Duterte’s move has been met by fierce criticism, including allies who have joined the majority of senators that have questioned the constitutionality of the VFA abrogation without legislative concurrence. The move has also met skepticism among many in the Philippines’ defense establishment as well as the vast majority of Filipinos, who maintain favorable views of America.
Ignoring public opinion and powerful allies in the Senate, Duterte seems more interested in deepening cooperation with China and Russia, which “respect the sovereignty of the country [the Philippines].” Now, there is even an open discussion of a possible VFA between the Philippines and China. But no matter what, Duterte’s shocking move exposes the country to many threats it is ill-prepared to manage, all while handing Beijing a key strategic victory amid blossoming ties with the Philippines – once America’s staunchest ally in the world.