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Philippines informs US of withdrawal from military pact

Ambassador to the United Nations Teodoro Locsin Jr. (Presidental Communications Operations Office/WikiCommons)
February 11, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Philippines officially notified the United States on Tuesday that it was terminating a decades-old military pact, leading the American embassy to say Manila’s move would have “significant implications” for the longtime alliance.

After weeks of threats uttered by senior Philippine officials from President Rodrigo Duterte on down, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced that Manila was withdrawing from the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), despite tensions in the disputed South China Sea and a security threat from Islamic State-linked extremists in the southern Philippines.

The U.S. embassy’s deputy chief of mission had received the signed document notifying Washington about the decision, Locsin said via Twitter.

“As a diplomatic courtesy there will be no further factual announcements following this self-explanatory development,” he said.

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The Philippine announcement comes weeks after President Duterte threatened to cut military ties after the U.S. State Department reportedly revoked an American visa for his former police chief, now-Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who had served as chief enforcer of the government’s drug war that has left thousands of people dead.

The American embassy, in a brief statement, confirmed Locsin’s announcement.

“This is a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippine alliance,” the embassy said. “We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests.”

The embassy reminded Manila that the two countries enjoyed a relationship that was “deeply rooted in history,” and the U.S. remained committed to friendship.

The announcement came a day after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper told reporters in a teleconference that he believed no one in the Philippines would put at risk “numerous engagements.” He noted that the allies were scheduled to discuss the VFA in March.

Speaking to local chief executives on Monday night, Duterte discussed efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump to maintain the military arrangement.

“Trump and others are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he said. “I said, I don’t like to.”

The agreement remains in force until a 180-day period from the time the notice was received, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said.

The VFA has allowed for large-scale joint military exercises between the allies after the United States vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, both located northwest of Manila – in the 1990s. Those exercises bore fruit in 2017 when U.S. intelligence officers aided Philippine troops in their successful battle against Islamic State militants in the southern city of Marawi.

Duterte: China ‘will not attack us’

On Monday, Duterte suggested that Beijing would not go to war with its smaller neighbors even though the Asian superpower has been boosting its military capabilities on claimed territories in the South China Sea.

“They will not attack us. Even if we allow [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to take a bath in Palawan tomorrow,” he said. “They do not mean harm if we do not also do something that is harmful to them.”

By comparison, Duterte said that hosting U.S. troops on Philippine soil could be a seen as a threat because their weapons are here and could be hit by enemies. Without providing details, Duterte said the Philippine Navy recently had detected a U.S. submarine in territorial waters.

Panfilo Lacson, an independent Philippine senator, said notice of the VFA termination means that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty “will now be reduced to a mere paper treaty as far as the U.S. is concerned.”

“Having said that, there’s no more intelligence information sharing in our fight against domestic and foreign terrorist acts,” he said. “No more U.S. military aid and financing that accounts for a good 52 percent of what they extend to the whole Asia-Pacific region.”

The Philippines stands to lose intangible economic benefits as well as protection from external threats, such as disputes in the South China Sea, Lacson said.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist who has been studying geopolitics and Duterte’s rise to power, also questioned the government’s move.

“Considering the American influence in the Philippines and its longstanding ties with the defense establishment, it probably reflects a tremendous amount of worry and anxiety on the part of Duterte and his inner circle about human rights sanctions against them,” Heydarian said.

“The VFA is absolutely vital because it is the software that allows the operationalization of the bilateral alliance,” he said. “China is the biggest beneficiary in this.”