Duterte scraps the Visiting Forces Agreement: How they covered it

Philippines locals take photos of U.S. military and Philippine Air Force aircraft during a static display at Clark Air Base, PhilippinesPhoto:US Marine Corps Forces Pacific

A look at how the media responded to the biggest story of the week.

President Rodrigo Duterte made global headlines this week when he announced plans to scrap the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. The agreement, put in place in 1998, allows a US military presence in the Philippines and commits the two countries to organising joint military exercises.

Its origins are steeped in the nations’ shared military history but if Duterte has his way, in six months from now, it will be no more. Marking a significant geopolitical turning point in the region, here is a sample of how the English-language press in and around Southeast Asia have covered the story.

What has prompted Duterte’s decision?

Duterte announced his intentions soon after the US refused to give Ronald Dela Rosa a visa. At first glance, that made the abrogation appear to be a retaliatory move to hit back at Trump.

However, according to Mark J. Valencia, writing in the South China Morning Post, this was not a snap decision. “Rodrigo Duterte’s move to distance the Philippines from its former colonial ruler was long in coming,” he wrote. “Generations of US foreign-policymakers have advanced US interests as if they were the same as Philippine interests – which they are not.” He went on to call the situation “the inevitable result of blinkered diplomatic ignorance and arrogance”.

Duterte’s counterpart in the US, Donald Trump, is reportedly less concerned by the agreement’s termination than his diplomats and officials. As per a report in The Khmer Times, he claimed the move would save the US “a lot of money”.

Filipino soldiers from the Philippines Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team train with U.S Soldiers from 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, on Philippine weapon systems during Exercise Salaknib on Fort Magsaysay, Philippines
Filipino soldiers from the Philippines Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team train with U.S Soldiers from 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
Photo: US Army

Another view is that Duterte’s decision to scrap the VFA is a negotiation strategy to secure more favourable diplomatic terms with the US. Quoted in The Japan Times, Manila-based expert Rommel Banlaoi made this clear. “The president is just conveying his desire to redefine the Philippines’ relationship with the US – in other words, he wants a better deal,” he claimed.

Annulling the VFA presents the Philippines with opportunities and challenges

Duterte’s shift out of alignment with the US could open foreign policy doors. Writing in the South China Morning Post, Lucio Blanco Pitlo III pondered whether the country will shift closer to China or follow the example of one of its ASEAN neighbours.

“If the alliance is allowed to wither, there are three possible models already present in the region that Manila could pursue: gravitate towards China, as Cambodia has; follow Indonesia’s example of non-alignment; or become more self-reliant in defence like Vietnam,” he wrote. He went on to outline that moving any closer to Beijing is unlikely while Vietnam-style self-reliance could be prohibitively expensive.

Writing in The Manila Bulletin, Justice Art D. Brion detailed the history of US-Filipino military alignment and the make-up of the current treaties.  “The termination of the VFA, however, could pose a legal dilemma…legally, the VFA no longer exists except for purposes of winding up,” he explained. “Second, the EDCA (Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement) is only an executive agreement that draws its legal viability from its supporting treaties – the general but inadequate MDT (Mutual Defence Treaty) terms, and the VFA which has now practically ceased to exist”.

Max Walden, writing for ABC, argued that the shift could both embolden China and lead to a resurgence among so-called Islamic State militants in the Philippines: “Observers say ending the agreement amounts to ending defence cooperation…China is likely to take advantage of receding US influence in the South China Sea”.

Similarly, Jay Batongbacal, writing for The Lowy Institute, called the move a “historic disruption” and “a serious blow to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea-based maritime order in Southeast Asia”.

What next?

In 1991, the Philippines cancelled the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) with the US after a deal to extend it did not gain enough support in the Senate. Seven years later, the two countries put in place the VFA – once it received constitutional approval.

Duterte must still overcome this hurdle, as Marichu A. Villanueva commented in The Philippine Star. “The VFA abrogation must first pass through the scrutiny of the Upper Chamber,” she wrote. “(Senate president Vicente) Sotto, who voted to ratify the VFA, maintains the position that President Duterte’s intention to abrogate the VFA must also get the two-thirds vote of the Senate to approve or reject it. For now, the VFA is still not yet dead.”

Is it a gamble, a bid to get more concessions from the US? If so, he may not have picked this fight wisely; Trump has shown he is not one to back down. If he holds firm, the VFA will lapse, unless it falls by the constitutional wayside in the Senate. That could have dire consequences for the region; perhaps, as Batongbacal predicts, it “may deliver the not only (sic) Philippines, but the rest of the region, to the tender mercies of a revisionist power”.