ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

In Sudden Step, Philippines Reverses Course on Ending US Visiting Forces Agreement—For Now

Will the reversal last?

Ankit Panda
In Sudden Step, Philippines Reverses Course on Ending US Visiting Forces Agreement—For Now
Credit: ACE MORANDANTE/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

The government of the Philippines has suspended its plan to abrogate the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. The decision, announced on Tuesday and taken Monday, is meant to last for six months.

Teodoro Locsin, the Philippine foreign secretary, made the announcement on Tuesday over Twitter. In a tweet, Locsin shared a diplomatic note that he had sent to the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

“The Note is self-explanatory and does not require comment except from me,” he said. “The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the President’s instruction.”

According to the text of the diplomatic note, the six-month abrogation will be “extendible by the Philippines for another six months.” After that period, unless other action is taken, Manila would revert to its original plan to abrogate the agreement, which was first announced on February 11, 2020.

On that date, the Philippine government, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, gave formal notice to the United States that would abrogate the agreement, which governs the status of U.S. military forces in the Philippines.

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The termination of the VFA would not put an end to the U.S.-Philippines alliance, which is governed by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

But the VFA — the latest iteration of which was initially ratified in 1999 — plays a fundamental role in normal military activities within the confines of the alliance. Without a VFA, the temporary presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines and, importantly, the implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Act, or EDCA, would be impossible.

The U.S.-Philippines alliance has seen its share of doldrums in the past. Most notably, after the Cold War, the Philippines in the early 1990s moved to end the permanent U.S. presence in the country. The 1999 VFA allowed the alliance to find a new footing.

The geopolitics of the Philippines’ February decision had much to do with ongoing U.S.-China tensions in the region. The abrogation decision came after more than three years of efforts by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte to move Manila closer to Beijing.

The proximal trigger for Duterte’s decision to abrogate the VFA was anger over the United States’ refusal to grant a visa to one of his confidants, a Philippine lawmaker who had been responsible for Duterte’s war on drugs, which has been widely criticized for human rights violations and extrajudicial violence.

The present decision to suspend the abrogation comes amid two important developments, one regional and one global. First, Manila has witnessed a series of provocations by China in the South China Sea, where it is a claimant state. Even though Duterte himself has tried to keep the South China Sea a low-profile issue, parts of the Philippine government continue to see threats to Manila’s interests.

As a result, recent Chinese standoffs with claimants including Vietnam and Malaysia may have weighed on Manila’s decision. The U.S. Navy has been present in the region and vocally supported these countries against Chinese assertiveness.

Separately, the implications of the global COVID-19 pandemic may be weighing on Manila. The Philippines has one of the region’s least well-equipped militaries and, as room for maneuver for militaries becomes constrained amid the pandemic, continued U.S.-Philippine cooperation may allow for improved capacity to respond to various contingencies.