A US Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle (front) maneouvers as a V-22 Osprey prepares to land on the USS Wasp, US Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship, during the amphibious landing exercises as part of the annual joint US-Philippines military exercise on the shores of San Antonio town, facing the South China sea, Zambales province on April 11, 2019. (Photo: Ted ALJIBE / AFP)

The US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement: The Duterte Punchbag That Will Probably Survive the Blows

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A long-standing Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States will probably survive despite threats from President Rodrigo Duterte to see the end of it.

US-Philippine relations under the Biden administration are off to a pretty good start.

On 27 January – his first day on the job -America’s new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, called his Philippine counterpart, Teddy Locsin. Blinken reaffirmed the importance of the US-Philippine alliance and reiterated the Trump administration’s pledge that under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), America would come to the aid of the Philippines if it came under attack in the South China Sea. 

Obviously pleased with their chat, Locsin tweeted he had had a “great conversation” and expressed optimism that the alliance would be strengthened under the new US administration.

On 9 February – a few weeks after he was confirmed – US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana. Austin pledged America’s commitment to the alliance, the MDT and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Both men agreed on the need to strengthen defence cooperation. 

A few days later, there was more good news when Locsin announced that officials from the two countries had met to discuss the future of the VFA. However, no details were provided on whether the meeting was by teleconference or in person, or what the two sides discussed.

The talks took place on the one year anniversary of President Rodrigo Duterte’s curmudgeonly decision to withdraw the Philippines from the VFA. In February 2020, Duterte said he would give the US 180 days’ notice that he would withdraw from the agreement after Washington refused to grant a travel visa to Ronald del Rosa, the former police chief turned senator who had run the President’s “war on drugs” which has led to thousands of extra-judicial deaths. 

The VFA, which came into effect in 1999, is the legal framework which allows US forces to visit the Philippines and conduct military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Without the VFA, American and Philippine forces cannot train together. China and Russia have quietly cheered the President’s decision.

A close defence relationship with the US is a useful thing to have when you are locked in a long running territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. In November 2020, the US gave the Philippines US$18 million in precision-guided munitions and US$15 million in drones to help secure its maritime borders.

Yet, on two occasions the Duterte administration postponed the termination of the VFA for six months -in June and November 2020. The two six-month extensions mean the agreement is now set to expire on 9 August 2021. 

While Duterte is clearly ambivalent about the value of the US-Philippines alliance, his defence officials are not. The Philippines is the largest recipient of US military aid in Southeast Asia (US$550 million between 2016 and 2019). Their combined exercises provide the AFP with invaluable training opportunities. 

A close defence relationship with the US is a useful thing to have when you are locked in a long running territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. In November 2020, the US gave the Philippines US$18 million in precision-guided munitions and US$15 million in drones to help secure its maritime borders. 

Lorenzana has called the US a “stabilizing force” and a “counter to China” in the Indo-Pacific region and that the defense department and AFP want to keep the VFA. The day after Locsin spoke with Blinken, he lodged a diplomatic protest with China over its new coast guard law, calling it a “verbal threat of war to any country that defies it”.

So if the Philippines’ defence and foreign policy elite are so worried about China and support the continuation of the VFA, why is Duterte so against it? The reason is simple: it provides a convenient rhetorical punchbag to vent his anti-Americanism.

His decision in February 2020 to abrogate the agreement was not based on any strategic rationale but was a way to punish the United States for having the temerity to deny a visa to one of his cronies. It also reflected his own anger at being refused a US visa when he was mayor of Davao, also due to alleged human rights abuses. 

On 26 December 2020, Duterte came out swinging against the VFA again when he threatened to terminate the agreement unless America provided his country with 20 million doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. And then in February he landed another blow against the VFA when he told Philippine troops that America must pay for it.

The fact that contracts to buy the vaccine are between Pfizer and national governments and not state-to-state, and that Duterte did not provide any details on how and why America should pay for the VFA are irrelevant: attacking the agreement allows him to burnish his populist credentials as the tough guy standing up to the American bully.

Will the VFA survive? If left to Locsin and Lorenzana, it almost certainly will. But Duterte is the final arbiter and he isn’t due to leave office until June 2022. 

Between now and then we can be sure that he will continue to threaten to tear up the agreement, especially if the Biden administration dials up the criticism of his administration’s human rights record. So until Duterte’s successor takes office, America will have to roll with the punches.

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