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US Military Snubbed in the Philippines

Feb 25, 2020
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR

On Feb. 12, the government of the Philippines issued a notice to the United States embassy to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, or VFA. Under the agreement, the two countries can negotiate issues within 180 days. The agreement is important to the U.S.-Philippine military alliance, so the development has attracted great attention around the world.

The military alliance was founded mainly on three legal documents: the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the 1998 VFA and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The VFA is a key foundation for maintaining the U.S. military presence in the Philippines. Terminating the agreement will directly impact the legitimacy of the that presence and will inevitably have a significant practical impact on the alliance.

The VFA is a basic treaty that clarifies the status of the U.S. military in the Philippines. It lays out the conditions, scope and convenience for the temporary entry of U.S. military personnel and equipment into the country. The most important aspect of the agreement is that it explicitly provides that the U.S. government has extraterritorial jurisdiction in cases of crimes committed in the Philippines by American military personnel. It is a basic legal guarantee designed to protect the rights and interests of the United States military.

In addition, the VFA clarifies the way the U.S. handles its military presence. The Constitution of the Philippines prohibits foreign troops from establishing military bases in Philippine territory, so the VFA actually makes it possible for the U.S. military to establish a presence in rotation based on the Mutual Defense Treaty and the pretext of hundreds of military exercises each year. The EDCA increases the scale of the military presence in rotation and allows the U.S. military to use and build related military facilities.

The termination of the agreement by the Philippine government will actually render the MDT and the EDCA useless.
As it stands now, the matter is escalating and will face both certainties and uncertainties in the future:

First, the Philippine government is acting not on impulse but thoughtfully. After Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, he adjusted the foreign policy that leaned toward the United States and had been in place since of the administration of Benigno S. Aquino III. Duterte refocused the policy on domestic economic development and social stability to keep his country from serving as cannon fodder for the United States’ strategy of containing China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Balancing the relationship with all parties without siding with any particular one of them has become a distinctive feature of the current foreign policy of the Duterte government. In this context, the Philippine government is no longer as enthusiastic about U.S.-Philippine diplomatic relations and frequent military exercises as it was before.

It is of particular note that on the issue of drug control in the southern Philippines, Duterte and the United States have continued to confront one another. What triggered the dispute was the U.S. revocation of former national police chief Ronald de la Rosa’s visa on the grounds of his alleged violations of human rights in anti-drug operations.

Duterte then retaliated with the termination of the VFA to counter the outrageous interference by the U.S. in the internal affairs of the Philippines. The Philippine parliament currently has some objections to the president’s decision to scrap the treaty, but as reported in the Philippine media the official opinion of government aligns with Duterte.

Second, the United States may not let it go. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the move by the Philippines “unfortunate” and “in the wrong direction” and that the United States would carefully study and judge this and try to solve the problem in the next 180 days. This shows that the U.S. government had not taken the threat of the Philippines scrapping the agreement seriously and was surprised and frustrated by the decision.

In addition, it demonstrates that Duterte’s move represented more than a cool-down in the military relations between the two countries. Rather, it was a substantial retrogression. In view of the important role of the Philippines in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as the Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry, the United States will strive to understand Philippine intentions during the negotiating period and take countermeasures to persuade or force it to keep the agreement going.

Third, uncertainties remain on what effects abolition of the agreement will have. It is intriguing that the leaders of the United States and the Philippines are still struggling over this issue, remaining tough and trying to test each other’s bottom lines.

When U.S. President Donald Trump said dismissively, “If they would like to do that, that’s fine. We’ll save a lot of money,” Duterte shot back with rhetoric of his own. Terminating the VFA “is a move in the right direction that should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “We must stand on our own and put a stop to being a parasite on another country in protecting our independence and sovereignty.”

It should be noted that the Philippines’ defense strength is weak, and the country relies heavily on U.S. military aid, including funding and training. If the agreement is ultimately abolished, how to fill the gap in the defense needs of the Philippinwes will be a major practical issue facing the Duterte government.

The statements of Philippine officials suggest there are currently two options. One is to enter similar military treaties with other countries to reduce dependence on the United States. (The Philippine military has acknowledged that it is engaging with many countries in this regard.) The other is to renegotiate the deal with the United States and reach a new agreement that is more in the interest of the Philippines and reflects the strategic value of the country to the United States. This point has received more support from officials and scholars.

Whether it will be consultations within 180 days or renegotiation afterward, the focus of the U.S.-Philippine rivalry will be in three main areas:

1. Restrict or cancel the extraterritoriality of the U.S. military, which harms the sovereignty and interests of the Philippines. This is what most Filipinos think.

2. While U.S. military personnel do not need to apply for a passport or visa to enter the Philippines, the Philippine side hopes that visas for Philippine military personnel to visit the United States will be exempted.

3. Ensure that substantive support for Philippine security is provided by the United States. There is a voice in the Philippines that the United States has never sent troops in a meaningful way to support the Philippines at a critical time in the South China Sea. What the Philippines wants is not a side-by-side exercise but a practical response.

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