Duterte Cancels US Military Agreement

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced Tuesday, Feb. 11, that he will remove the state from the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US. The move comes only six years after the two nations signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) aimed at boosting a relationship that began in 1951. 

Under the VFA, the two militaries held roughly 300 joint exercises each year, The New York Times reported. With the notice of termination—officially received by the US deputy chief of mission—a 180-day countdown begins. Around 250 American forces are perpetually-stationed on the archipelago nation.

Since 2002, American forces have been tasked with countering an estimated 500 Islamic State insurgents on the Mindanao group of islands in Operation Pacific Eagle. US troops have routinely assisted with surveillance and intelligence work as well. A deadly 2017 battle unleashed bloodshed with high collateral damage to the city of Marawi. Although the US assisted with turning the tide against the terrorists, it was actually the Chinese who rushed to the scene in the aftermath for rebuilding efforts.

The Philippines: An Open Door for Beijing

Chinese efforts were indubitably part of a larger plan from Beijing to spread its sphere of influence across the South China Sea, Africa, the Middle East, and even Latin America. Duterte’s decision to end the US partnership could continue to drive the nation into the arms of China.

Thomas M. Sanderson, former director of the Center for Strategic International Studies’ transnational threats program, has spent time with the Philippine military and says he has witnessed firsthand the benefits for Beijing. 

“It’s a real-world laboratory for Chinese drones,” Sanderson said.

For this reason, the Philippines have always been viewed as a vital territory for maintaining US dominance in the region. However, Duterte’s expulsion of US forces will likely open the door to Beijing, possibly causing it to turn into another situation like Cambodia, where American diplomats suspect China is creating a military base.

Duterte’s Growing Frustration with the United States

Duterte’s decision was his alone and not necessarily reflective of the overall mindset in the Philippines. However, he has become increasingly flustered with American leadership and getting what he considers a raw deal in the Manila-Washington partnership. A refusal to share military technology seemed to be one part of his complaints against Washington. 

“They do not leave [the weapons] with us. None,” Duterte said, adding that Americans are “very ill mannered.” 

Philippine Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, a Duterte ally, was recently denied a US visa, which likely sparked the move to end the VFA.

Opposition to Duterte’s Move within the Filipino Senate

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin recently argued against the decision in the Philippine Senate last week. The move, he said, would reduce the ability of the US to respond to attacks in the South China Sea.

“Terminating the VFA will negatively impact the Philippine security and defense arrangements, as well as the overall bilateral relations of the Philippines with the U.S., and perhaps even on the sub-regional level,” Locsin said, adding, “Our contribution to regional defense is anchored on our military alliance with the world’s last superpower.”

Locsin recently seemed to suggest via Twitter taht the VFA cancellation could be a signal for US President Donald Trump that Duterte is open to negotiations. However, Duterte has publicly said he “will not entertain” offers from the US or even an invitation to the White House. 

‘It’s About Time We Rely on Ourselves’

“It’s about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country,” said Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo on behalf of Duterte, National Public Radio reported. Critically, Panelo said Manila would consider forging similar ties with other nations, assuming a mutual benefit. China seems like the most likely contender for such a partnership.

The US forces engaged in counterterrorism activities will be immune from the cancellation of the VFA, however regular joint troop exercises from visiting forces will presumably end. The EDCA allowed the use of five Philippine military bases, but the US does not have its own anymore on the island state.