How the Philippines could become a hotspot in the US-China rivalry

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (right), pictured here with US counterpart Donald Trump. Photo: Karl Norman Alonzo and Robinson Niñal Jr. / Public domain

The Philippines’ decision not to end its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US hints at Duterte’s uncertainty over relations with the US and China.

By Niranjan Marjani

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte recently reversed his decision to terminate his country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. The move comes despite the fact that relations between the Philippines and the US have not been cordial in recent years as the Southeast Asian nation has grown closer to China.

China has promised to invest in the Philippines but these projects largely have yet to materialize. In addition, China has recently built two research stations on the Filipino-claimed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.

China’s encroachment on the Philippines’ territory forced Duterte to rethink his decision to step away from the US and drop the VFA. For the Philippines, relations with China and the US present a dilemma: a choice between economic development from Beijing—delayed, but still possible—and protection for its strategic interests from Washington.

Philippines-US relations have deteriorated over the past few years

The Philippines and the US have enjoyed close ties in economic and strategic areas over the years. Annual trade between the two has been around $15-20 billion for the past two decades and the US is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner.

Strategically, the Philippines and the US have two agreements: the Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA. The Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 has facilitated the US military presence in the Philippines since the Cold War, with each country committed to defending the other in case of a foreign attack. The VFA of 1998 dictates the procedures the Philippines has to follow regarding US forces in the Philippines, including the entry and departure of US military personnel, the rights of US military personnel, criminal jurisdiction and more.

But Philippines-US relations started deteriorating when former US President Barack Obama expressed concerns about human rights abuses in the Philippines in 2016. Duterte criticized Obama’s comments and spoke about “breaking up” with the US. Following the spat, Duterte indicated the country would move closer to Russia and China. The US also refused to sell weapons to the Philippines, causing further friction.

The Philippines has continued to move closer to China, expressing support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese development in the Philippines. In return for China’s promises of investment in the Philippines, Duterte kept his distance from the US.

But China’s investment projects in the Philippines failed to materialize. While China is the second-largest investor in the Philippines, many of its projects, like the Subic-Clark cargo train and the Trans-Mindanao Railway, have hit a rough patch. Projects like the Chico river pump irrigation plan and the Kaliwa dam have faced obstacles because of opposition over ecological impacts.

Chinese projects in the Philippines have also faced obstacles like red tape, unfavorable media coverage and resistance from the country’s defense establishments and judiciary. Following public pressure, Duterte announced a review of all Chinese projects in the country last year.

USS Ashland in the South China Sea. Photo: Naval Surface Warriors / CC BY-SA

China’s assertive actions have led the Philippines to rethink its stance on the VFA

China has made repeated incursions into waters claimed by the Philippines. In March, China launched two research stations on the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea and Chinese fishing boats regularly enter the Philippines’ territorial waters. Duterte had earlier ignored these activities in an effort to attract Chinese investments.

China’s strategic activities in the South China Sea, coupled with the fact that China’s investments have not benefitted the Philippines, caused Duterte to reverse his decision to terminate the VFA.

The Philippines’ dilemma over the VFA could turn it into another hotspot for US-China tensions, on top of Vietnam and Taiwan. Recently, the US carried out a naval exercise in the West Philippine Sea to counter China’s plans to enforce an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.

Under Duterte, the Philippines is shifting back and forth between China and the US. His policies point towards more uncertainty, rather than balance, and may lead the country to become another focal point of the US-China rivalry.

About the Author

Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani is an Independent journalist and researcher based in Vadodara, India. His areas of specialisation are international relations and geopolitics.