This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippine military said Thursday that its armed forces would survive and safeguard the nation from internal and external threats even without help from the United States, after President Rodrigo Duterte decided to end a decades-old defense pact with Washington.
Manila notified the United States on Feb. 11 that the Philippines, a former American colony, was terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
“We – soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines – are toeing the line of Commander-in-Chief and President Rodrigo Duterte toward self-reliance,” military spokesman Marine Brig. Gen. Edgar Arevalo said in a statement.
“It bears repeating: We can survive; we will; we should,” he said.
Duterte took the decision to scuttle the VFA in reaction to Washington cancelling a U.S. visa for his former national police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, apparently because of his past role in the Duterte administration’s anti-drug campaign that has left thousands dead. Dela Rosa is a Philippine senator.
In response to Duterte’s move, U.S. President Donald Trump said ending the VFA would ultimately save his government “a lot of money.”
Arevalo reiterated that the Philippine military will protect the nation.
“With the abrogation of the VFA, we assure our countrymen that we will again, as our forebears did in their time, valiantly face contemporary threats to national security, terrorism, and other transnational crimes,” Arevalo said.
“We will secure our people and defend our country with the relatively and modestly modern AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] we have now,” he said.
In a speech on Wednesday night, Duterte said Filipino forces would be able to defeat its enemies even without American help.
“Do we need America to survive as a nation? Do we need the might and power of the military of the United States to fight our rebellion here and the terrorists down south and control drugs?” he asked, according to an official transcript of the speech.
“The military and police said ‘sir, we can do it,’” Duterte said. “If we can’t do it, we have no business being a republic.”
Adopted in 1999, the VFA allows for joint military exercises and operations after the U.S. vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, near Manila.
Arevalo noted that when the Philippines ended half a century of U.S. military presence by dropping the lease contract for the two bases in 1992, the Southeast Asian country “struggled but survived” until the VFA was signed years later.
Just three years after the American pullout, China took control of the Mischief Reef in the contested South China Sea. At first, Chinese officials insisted they had built a shelter for fishermen in the area, but the area has expanded and is believed to contain an air and naval installation.
China’s actions in the South China Sea led the government of then-President Fidel Ramos to negotiate the VFA, arguing that the presence of U.S. forces was a necessary deterrent against aggression.
The U.S. returned to the country and helped the Philippines military to train troops to combat extremists, including Abu Sayyaf militants.
When militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) took over southern Marawi city three years ago, the U.S. sent troops to help gather intelligence and flew spy planes to pinpoint enemy positions, receiving credit for helping end the five-month siege.
However, the Philippines is in no position to unilaterally end the VFA, according to a security analyst.
Of concern is a security vacuum that would be left when the Americans do leave, said Rommel Banlaoi, who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
Without the U.S., the Philippines, he said, could work more closely with neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and even Japan as it tried to fill the void.
Japan has tried to negotiate a VFA with the Philippines, but talks never advanced.
“But Japanese troops have already started joining annual exercises with the U.S. as a guest,” Banlaoi told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.