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Foreign Policy

The South China Sea: Duterte Pivots Back to the US

Jun 27, 2020

“No more [US military] bases, they have to start to talk to us because they have to go. Bastos eh [they’re disrespectful],” warned Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this year amid escalating tensions with Washington over human rights issues. 

In particular, the Filipino leader was outraged by American travel restrictions imposed against his close ally and former police chief, Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, and overall criticisms of his violent drug war. In response, the Philippines imposed retaliatory travel restrictions on several American senators who have been vocal critics of Duterte’s human rights record. 

To almost everyone’s shock, the Philippine president unilaterally initiated the abrogation of the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which has degraded decades of multidimensional security cooperation. Since America’s colonization of the Philippines in the early-20th century, the Southeast Asian country has effectively outsourced a significant portion of its foreign and defense policy to Washington. Even after gaining formal independence in the 1940s, the Philippines still heavily relied on its former colonizer’s assistance by hosting America’s largest overseas naval and air force bases in Subic and Clark. 

Throughout the Cold War period, the Philippines fought side by side American troops during the Korean War and served as a major logistics hub for US military operations in Vietnam. The century-old alliance was in full force well into the 21st century, as the two countries became key partners in counter-terrorism operations, with the southern Philippine island of Mindanao turning into the second front of the Global War on Terror. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, the former Benigno Aquino administration sought even greater American military presence on its soil by negotiating a new defense deal, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). In many ways, the Philippine elite largely treated the alliance with the US as almost sacrosanct, but President Duterte would not have any of that, instead seeking greater distance from America in favor of warmer ties with China. 

The move greatly pleased China, which has publicly opposed America’s expanding military presence in the Philippines and the broader region. Throughout the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Duterte repeatedly thanked Beijing for providing medical assistance and diplomatic support. In June, however, he made a dramatic policy about-face by suspending the VFA’s termination, which was supposed to take effect in August. The move reflects growing strategic anxieties in the Philippines, especially vis-à-vis the festering disputes in the South China Sea. 

Policy Reversal 

On June 2, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. sent shockwaves through a late-evening tweet when he announced that the Philippines was reconsidering its decision to suspend the VFA.

“The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the President’s instruction,” explained the Philippines’ top diplomat, emphasizing how Duterte was personally behind the decision. In an attached note verbale addressed to the US Embassy in Manila, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) vaguely alluded to “political and other developments in the region” as the basis for the decision.

The suspension came months ahead of the 180 days process of abrogation per the VFA. The DFA explained that not only would termination proceedings be pushed down for another six months, beginning in June, but that the suspension is “extendible by the Philippines for another six months.” This means the VFA will remain in effect well into 2021. 

Since Duterte is already in his last two years in office, and the Philippines’ next presidential elections will informally start middle of next year (legally the campaign should start by 2022, but traditionally informal/surreptitious campaigning starts 6 months earlier), there is sufficient reason to conclude that the VFA will remain intact for the foreseeable future. More than four years into office, the Filipino president, who once threatened to boot out all American troops in favor of warmer ties with China, has effectively retained the Philippines’ century-old alliance with America. 

“The United States welcomes the Philippine government’s decision. Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” declared the US Embassy in Manila, welcoming Duterte’s policy reversal. 

The Filipino president himself is yet to provide a detailed and coherent explanation for his volte-face, but other top officials have been provided certain clues. For instance, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez told the media that “obviously” the decision may have been driven by “quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea”.  

A Bet against Uncertainty 

Since March, China has gradually stepped up its efforts to consolidate its claims in adjacent waters, ranging from large-scale military drills to expanding civilian and military facilities in reclaimed islands in the Spratlys as well as deploying maritime forces to disputed land features in the area. Meanwhile, Vietnam has accused China of sinking and apprehending its fishing vessels, while Chinese maritime forces have reportedly harassed a Malaysian oil drillship. 

Though Duterte himself has rarely expressed critical statements vis-à-vis China’s activities in the South China Sea, top Philippine officials in the foreign affairs and defense departments have been more vocal with their views in recent months. The Philippines’ top diplomat in Washington made it clear that many in Manila “have seen that it would be prudent for us to just simply suspend first any implementation of the termination.”

With rising tensions in mind, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also issued a surprising “statement of solidarity” with Vietnam in April, criticizing China for “provocative” and aggressive actions in the South China Sea. The following month, top defense and military officials in the Philippines accused a Chinese warship of pointing its “radar gun” on a Philippine frigate. Filipino officials criticized the incident as “unprovoked” and “very hostile”, with The Philippines’ foreign affairs secretary accusing China of acting in “violation of [both] international law and Philippine sovereignty.” 

By June, Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana made a high-profile visit to Thitu Island in the Spratlys to inaugurate a new beaching ramp as part of a “historic milestone” to defend the Philippines’ claims in the area. The Philippines’ defense chief vowed to step up the government’s efforts to further strengthen the Southeast Asian country’s position on the ground by revitalizing military and civilian facilities on Philippine-occupied islands. 

In an interview with the author on June 10, Lorenzana confirmed that the government would allocate at least $32 million (PHP 1.6 billion) for such efforts, with the aim of “develop[ing] this area into a viable community”, especially since Thitu alone has been hosting close to 200 civilians and soldiers since the late-1970s. Given the Philippine defense and political establishment’s growing concerns over the South China Sea disputes, Duterte may have calculated that in times of immense geopolitical uncertainty he simply can’t afford an ugly strategic divorce with America, the Philippines’ sole treaty ally. 

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