Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has reiterated the United States’ commitment to help the Philippines defend its sovereignty in the South China Sea from Chinese incursions. His comments were made in a call with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana on February 10 (February 9, Washington-time), which they discussed a number of pressing bilateral defense issues.
According to the official readout from the Department of Defense, Secretary Austin “affirmed the U.S. commitment to the U.S.-Philippines alliance and our bilateral Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), highlighting the value the VFA brings to both countries.”
The two secretaries also “discussed the importance of enhancing the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ capabilities and increasing interoperability between our two militaries through a variety of bilateral security cooperation activities.”
Austin’s call followed a similar call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. in late January. In that conversation, Blinken said that the Biden administration would “stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure,” and that the U.S. “rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.”
Blinken also clarified that the Mutual Defense Treaty, the bedrock of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, would apply “to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.”
Between them, the calls have addressed two lingering concerns in the alliance, which has become strained since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.
The first was the question, predating Duterte’s time in office, of whether the Biden administration would, like the Trump administration before it, apply the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to Philippine-occupied features in the South China Sea, which were formally claimed by Manila only in 1978. In effect, this means that the U.S. pledges to come to the Philippines’ aid in the event that Chinese forces attack Philippine forces or Philippine-claimed features in the area.
The second applies to the VFA, a bilateral pact signed in 1998 that sets the rules for U.S. military personnel deployed in the Philippines. The VFA fell victim to Duterte’s prickly, mercurial nature in February 2020, when he formally announced that he was ending the pact, with termination to take effect in 180 days. The decision apparently came after a close ally was refused a visa to the U.S. due to his involvement in serious human rights abuses.
In June, however, Duterte reversed course, suspending his cancellation of the VFA for six months. He then postponed it for a further six months in November – leaving the agreement in limbo for the beginning of the Biden administration. In the words of Secretary Locsin, this was in order to “enable us to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our mutual defense.”
In practice, that probably means Duterte seeing what he can wring out of the U.S. in exchange for the cancellation of the cancellation (as it were). Late last year, Duterte suggested that he would condition reinstatement of the VFA on the receipt of COVID-19 vaccines from the U.S. government. “No vaccine, no stay here,” he was quoted as saying.
This hints at the volatility and unpredictably that Duterte has injected into the U.S.-Philippine alliance since 2016. Angered by the American reaction to his bloody “war on drugs,” and other personal resentments toward the U.S., he turned away from Washington and made overtures to Beijing. Hoping to tap the Chinese government for much-needed infrastructure funding under the Belt and Road Initiative, he downplayed the disputes in the South China Sea, even failing to press the 2016 international arbitral award that described most of China’s claims to the South China Sea as illegal.
Despite the Biden administration’s attempts to reset the U.S.-Philippine alliance, Duterte remains an unstable factor in the equation. Most likely, U.S. officials won’t breathe easily until Duterte’s term comes to an end next year.