In this May 9, 2018 photo, American and Filipino troops participate in an amphibious landing exercise simulating a beach assault during the annual Balikatan exercises in San Antonio, Zambales.
Philstar.com/Efigenio Toledo IV, File photo
Commentary: Backing off threat to end Philippines-US military pact
Renato Cruz De Castro (Philstar.com) - June 13, 2020 - 5:56pm

On June 2, 2020, Philippine television channels aired the breaking news Foreign Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr. announcing that the government has suspended the Philippine-U.S. Visiting Force Agreement’s (VFA) termination “in the light of “the political and other developments in the region.” 

He added that President Rodrigo Duterte directed the Department of Foreign Affairs to inform the US Embassy in Manila of the government decision on the suspension of the VFA’s effective abrogation in August 2020.  

The following day, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana explained that the reason behind the president’s decision was the current pandemic and Philippines’ need to cooperate with other countries to fight the pandemic. 

He said: “I think the president thought it was not timely to end the VFA at this time [of the pandemic].” Accordingly, the “suspension of the VFA termination meant scheduled activities of Filipino and American troops will proceed.” 

In early February, Duterte showed his resolve to abrogate the VFA allegedly after the US. government cancelled Senator Ronald “Bato” de La Rosa’s visa. 

On Feb. 11, 2020, he instructed Locsin to deliver the letter of termination to the US Embassy. This was despite the advice of his foreign and defense secretaries, and the majority of senators to review instead of terminating the treaty. 

Duterte, through his spokesperson, even implied he might even abrogate the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).  

Revolt of diplomats, soldiers 

On February 29, Philippine Ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, announced that he and the US Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kin, were looking into Manila’s Status of Forces Agreement with Canberra could be a possible template for the VFA’s replacement. 

On the military’s part, ranking AFP officers warned that scrapping the agreement would lead to the withdrawal of US Special Forces in Mindanao who assist the AFP in intelligence-gathering and surveillance in counter-terrorism operations against Islamic militants.   

Senior military officers also shared their internal assessment of the adverse effects of the VFA’s termination on the AFP’s operational readiness, as temporary US military presence in the country is vital to the Philippines’ defense posture in terms of equipment, training and funding.   

A majority of senators supported the military in opposing the commander-in-chief. On March 2, the Philippine Senate voted 12-0-8 to pass Senate Resolution No. 337 that will ask the Philippine Supreme Court to rule if a sitting president can approve and terminate international agreement without the upper chamber’s concurrence. 

On March 9, the president of the Philippine Senate filed the petition to the Supreme Court asking it to define the limits of presidential powers in the termination of the 1999 VFA in particular, and all treaties in general.

A little help from Duterte’s friend 

The DND, AFP and DFA got an important help from an unexpected source—China.  

On February 17, a People’s Liberation Army’s Navy’s (PLAN) corvette directed its Gun Control Director to the Philippine Navy’s anti-submarine corvette the BRP Conrado Yap near Rizal Reef in the South China Sea. This is the first time that a PLAN warship directly threatened a Philippine public vessel in the South China Sea. 

In March, a Chinese military transport plane landed on Fiery Cross or Kagitingan Reef on a routine supply mission aimed for a low-level consolidation of its control of the South China Sea.

In early April, China started the operations of two maritime research stations in two artificial islands that are claimed by the Philippines: Fiery Cross or Kagitingan and Subi or Zamora Reefs.

On April 18, the State Council of the city of Sansha announced the establishment of two new districts to administer the disputed waters in the South China Sea. These moves are all part of China’s gambit to demonstrate its assertiveness in the disputed waters while other claimant states, like the Philippines, are preoccupied with addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

One step forward, two steps back

On June 30, 2016, Duterte declared that he would discontinue the AFP modernization program and redirected the armed forces to internal security. His plan drew a silent protest from the AFP.

Sensitive to military discontent, he was forced to honor defense plans and contracts put in the pipeline by the previous administration.  

On Oct. 26, 2017, he proclaimed the Philippines’ separation from the US in front of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Upon his return to Manila, however, the DND and AFP asked him what he meant by separation. 

On November 8, Secretary Lorenzana announced that the Philippine-US security alliance will not be abrogated and that the EDCA will be implemented. 

Duterte’s retreat from his move to end alliance sprang in late 2016 from his realization that his hostile view on the US has alienated the military which considers its institutional links with the US armed forces as vital for its combat operations. 

In all three instances, when confronted by his military, Duterte has found it convenient to take “one step forward, two steps back.” 

Renato Cruz de Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute

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