Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte decided on Tuesday to end a long-standing defense agreement with the United States, signaling a major break in a U.S.-Philippines military alliance that the United States has long seen as essential to countering the rise of China.
The Philippine president officially filed to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which gives U.S. troops a legal basis to be present for bilateral exercises in the country, after he had threatened for weeks to end the 21-year-old agreement. Duterte’s threats began after Ronald dela Rosa, a senator and former police chief who oversaw the Philippines’ deadly drug war at its peak, saw his U.S. visa canceled.
U.S. President Donald Trump shrugged off the move, saying it will “save a lot of money” for the United States. But defense officials and analysts in both countries expressed grave concern the termination would fuel Beijing’s aggressive position in the South China Sea, where it asserts sovereignty over areas claimed by other countries, including the Philippines.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that ending the defense pact was a “move in the wrong direction,” away from American goals to contain Chinese regional expansionism, while two senior officers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines told Rappler the move is unpopular within the military, with one general calling it “disadvantageous.”
The termination of the VFA has been interpreted as a move toward other powers, such as China and Russia, which a diplomat said Wednesday is discussing a joint military technical cooperation agreement with the Philippines.
Duterte has come under fire domestically for his unpopular embrace of Beijing—a sentiment that boiled over in response to his handling of the novel coronavirus, along with moves to sign high-interest loan agreements for infrastructure projects with Chinese companies and allow China to build artificial islands in Philippine areas of the disputed South China Sea. The Philippine military in particular is highly distrustful of China and values the established relationship with the United States.
“The U.S. military’s forward-deployed presence through the VFA is critical” to deterring China in the South China Sea, said Jeffrey Ordaniel, an assistant professor of international security studies at Tokyo International University, who called the agreement’s termination “a welcome development for China.”
Along with concerns over Chinese expansionism, Ordaniel said the termination could harm counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, especially in areas of Mindanao and the Sulu Sea where the Armed Forces of the Philippines “will lose important intelligence and reconnaissance information” in operations targeting extremists.
The move will also impact U.S. support for Philippine counterinsurgency operations targeting the communist New People’s Army, which rights groups allege has expanded into a deadly government campaign against legal activists, including journalists and environmental defenders, who are critical of the Duterte administration.
The United States has historically assisted the Armed Forces in operations against the New People’s Army by training Philippine officials, applying “modern counterinsurgency doctrines” and providing “continued military and assistance and weaponry,” said Bobby Tuazon, the director for policy studies at the Manila-based research think tank Center for People Empowerment in Governance.
In 2018, the Armed Forces established an anti-communist task force that has since conducted counterinsurgency raids leading to killings and arrests of activists without ties to the New People’s Army. The operations have drawn condemnation from global rights groups and U.S. politicians, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Washington’s level of tolerance for rights abuses has long been part of a delicate balancing act as the United States forges alliances with Asian states susceptible to rising Chinese influence, said Jeremy Huai-che Chiang, a research associate at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
The United States “does not want to alienate partners by pressuring them to close ranks [against China] and by pushing too hard on human rights concerns,” Chiang said. “But it also doesn’t want to be too lenient toward countries moving closer [to] China, and [toward] less liberal and democratic practices.”
Trump has given support to the brutal Philippine war on drugs, but the United States has since canceled the visa of dela Rosa—notorious for his role when anti-drug operations reached their bloodiest peak—and the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in January seeking Magnitsky Act sanctions against Philippine officials involved in the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima, a vocal drug war critic.
These moves appeared to trigger Duterte’s desire to terminate the VFA, which was made suddenly in a speech without consultation with his defense and foreign secretaries. “It was likely an outburst brought about by his deep-seated unfavorable opinion of [the United States],” Ordaniel, the Tokyo International University professor, said.
Duterte has criticized Philippine-U.S. ties in the past. On Thursday, his spokesperson said that “reading the body language” of Duterte, it’s clear the president wishes to terminate remaining defense agreements with the United States, including the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and subsequent pacts including the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
The United States has always retained broad trust among Filipinos, many of whom fear the termination of the VFA will push the country closer to Beijing. But the U.S. military presence in the Philippines has also come under periodic fire, especially from progressives who see the troops as a vestige of decades of American colonialism in the archipelago.
Still, the Philippine left has been hesitant about celebrating the end of the VFA. “The Philippine government’s pivot closer to China will defeat the purpose of the termination of the VFA,” said Tinay Palabay, the secretary-general of the progressive rights group alliance Karapatan, while calling the agreement’s end “a positive step to assert our sovereignty”—which the left fears is threatened by both the United States and China.
Under the VFA, U.S. troops accused of crimes in the Philippines usually stand trial in domestic courts but do not spend prison time in the country if found guilty. In 2006, a U.S. serviceman convicted of rape was transferred to the U.S. Embassy before being controversially acquitted in 2009, sparking outrage in the Philippines. This has led to a “public perception regarding unjust treatment on the Philippines” by the United States, said Tuazon of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance.
Analysts also question whether the United States has done enough to strengthen the military capability of the Philippines. The Duterte administration has said that the U.S. defense alliance has only rendered the Armed Forces dependent on U.S. assistance, an argument that Tuazon said “has gained traction, including among the military.”
The Philippine military, Ordaniel said, “lacks deterrent capability”—and that may compel Beijing to interpret the termination of the VFA as an open invitation to solidify its claims on the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands, which an international tribunal ruled in 2016 were part of the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. However, a more assertive Chinese position in the South China Sea could also lead to “a more aggressive role by the U.S. in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region,” Tuazon said, especially as any loss of Manila as a reliable U.S. defense ally would break the so-called first island chain encompassing Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo.
Analysts have long warned that Duterte’s turn toward China is more complex than it appears to be at the surface—the Philippine military has always valued its ties with the United States, Duterte has strengthened his own power by forging warm relations with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and Washington gives Manila a degree of latitude to keep it out of the clutches of Beijing. It’s no wonder this sudden lurch has left few people happy: Even for those Filipinos who see the United States as a threat to their country’s sovereignty, they fear the Philippines will only be left exposed to another great power.