This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippine government’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States is a “move in the wrong direction,” the U.S. defense chief said, as Washington competes with Beijing in the South China Sea region.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. received official notification about Manila’s decision to end the military pact late Monday, and he wanted to hear from his commanders about the move, considered by security analysts as a formal downgrading of the longtime bilateral military alliance.
“We have to digest it. We have to work through the policy angles, the military angles,” Esper told reporters Wednesday morning (Manila time) while traveling in a plane from the U.S. to a NATO meeting in Europe, as he gave his first public comments on the move, which officials in Manila had been threatening to make for weeks.
He said the Philippine decision was unfortunate but U.S. officials had six months to study its implications.
“I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction,” he said, emphasizing this comes at a time when the U.S. and other regional allies “are trying to say to the Chinese ‘you must obey the international rules of order.’”
“And as we try and, you know, bolster our presence and compete with them in this era of great power competition, I think it’s a move in the wrong direction for – for, again, for the longstanding relationship we’ve had with the Philippines for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries,” Esper said, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon.
The Philippines, a former American colony, is among countries that have contending territorial claims in the South China Sea, a vital waterway for international shipping and trade. China claims almost all of the sea, while the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own overlapping claims to portions of the disputed waters.
For nearly two decades, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a code of conduct to regulate behavior in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. military has carried out freedom of navigation flights and sailing in the sea.
Since taking office in June 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned of cutting military ties with the U.S., but his rhetoric softened after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president later that year.
Duterte’s anger was touched off again in recent weeks after the former national police chief who had led his administration’s controversial war on illegal drugs, Ronald dela Rosa – now a senator – said that the United States had revoked his American visa.
Dela Rosa surmised that it had something to do with the drug war that he used to enforce. The campaign has left nearly 6,000 suspected drug addicts and dealers dead, according to government figures, and has been described as a humanitarian disaster.
Duterte also railed against members of the U.S. Senate for backing Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima, his arch nemesis who has been jailed for what she calls trumped up charges of profiting from illegal drugs.
Adopted in 1999, the VFA allows for joint military exercises after the U.S. vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base. In 2017, some of that training was put into action as U.S. intelligence officers aided Philippine troops in their successful battle against Islamic State militants in the southern city of Marawi.
Philippines: ‘We must stand on our own’
On Wednesday, Philippine Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. admitted that the VFA termination would affect the military’s ability to combat threats, along with training efforts that have been positive for both nations.
“Since we have sent the notice, ongoing training activities will push through unless discontinued. Others will not be implemented,” Santos said.
“It will affect our rescue operations definitely. But we already presented to the defense secretary our plan to move forward to fill the gap,” he said without elaborating.
Salvador Panelo, the presidential spokesman, said that the VFA should have been scrapped a long time ago.
“Such a commentary is expected given that the VFA favors the U.S. and its abrogation affects its global strategic defensive positioning,” Panelo said in a statement responding to Esper’s comments.
“It is about time that we strengthen our defense capabilities. We must stand on our own and put a stop to being a parasite to another country in protecting our independence and sovereignty,” Panelo said.
He said relying on another nation to boost the military would weaken defenses.
“We are friends to all, enemies to one. Should any country, however, threaten our territorial integrity and assault our sovereignty, we will rise by our own resources and valiantly defend our motherland the way our forefathers did during their time,” he said.
Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said he hoped the VFA termination would lead to new negotiations.
“It will give us an opportunity to negotiate another agreement that will be more advantageous to us,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. “This doesn’t mean we’re putting behind our good relationship with America. We’re just asking for a good deal with America that’s advantageous to our interest.”
He said the Philippines’ strategic location in the Asia Pacific guaranteed a good bargaining chip.
“Before they can enter Guam, Hawaii, mainland U.S., they have to go through the Philippines first,” he said. “We are their natural barrier, we have a very good location.”
Meanwhile, according to Esper, the Philippine announcement does not signal the end of negotiations.
“We’ve got to work through it, and – and we’ll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time,” he said.