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Philippines delays ending military pact with US amid China’s growing aggression

Philippine Marines train alongside U.S. Marines, July 15, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tyler S. Giguere/Released)
June 14, 2021

The Philippines have chosen for the third time to delay a decision that would end a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., amid ongoing territorial disputes between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.

Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said in a statement Monday, reported by Reuters, that the decision to end the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) would be delayed an additional six months while President Rodrigo Duterte “studies, and both sides further address his concerns regarding, particular aspects of the agreement.”

The VFA was enacted in 1999 and has been in place for 22 years. The agreement lays out rules for the rotation of thousands of U.S. troops in and out of the Philippines, often for joint military drills and exercises. The VFA states that the U.S. retains jurisdiction over any instances in which U.S. personnel is found guilty of a crime in the Philippines.

The Philippines have previously objected to the VFA, raising issues with how the agreement addresses those legal jurisdictional issues as well as complaints about environmental degradation caused by U.S. maritime drills in the area.

In February 2020, Duterte called for an end to the agreement, but the New York Times reported in June that Duterte had backed down from the decision to end the VFA for the time being. In November 2020, Duterte again delayed putting an end to the VFA. With the prior delays, the VFA was set to end in August before this latest delay pushed back the end date even further.

The continued delay of the Philippine decision to end the VFA comes as the country has increasingly squared off with China over its activities in the South China Sea. Duterte’s Manila government has repeatedly accused China of deploying hundreds of illegal “maritime militia” troops to operate inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

In May, Locsin himself told China to “get the fuck out” of what is known domestically as the West Philippines Sea.

The maritime dispute between the Philippines and China comes even as Duterte has repeatedly condemned U.S. foreign policy and sought to embrace China.

The continued delay to ending the VFA also comes as the Philippines was announced as one of the countries set to receive some of the 80 million U.S.-developed COVID-19 vaccines the Biden administration recently pledged to donate.

Earlier this month, Jose Manuel Romualdez, Manila’s ambassador to Washington, told Reuters he is confident Duterte will agree to a new version of the VFA he said would be “acceptable” and “mutually beneficial” to the Manila government and the U.S.