Duterte’s threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US appears to be an attempt to negotiate a better defense partnership. The tenuous situation is likely to persist until the two sides reach an agreement.
By Umair Jamal
The Philippines, a long-time US ally in Southeast Asia, has announced plans to review its earlier decision to scrap a major military pact with the United States, suspending the cancellation of the pact for an additional six months.
The VFA between the Philippines and the United States has defined the countries’ military partnership for two decades.
In an attempt to diversify its defense ties, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has pushed to expand the Philippines’ military cooperation with other major military powers, particularly China and Russia—a move which is likely to antagonize the US.
However, the recent move to put off the cancellation of the VFA shows that Duterte may be pushing for a better defense deal with the US—something that Manila has sought for years.
What explains the Philippines’ new policy on the VFA?
Duterte’s latest announcement is the second time he has suspended his decision to terminate the VFA following a similar suspension in June. In February, the Philippines made the decision to terminate the defense treaty after the US withdrew the visa of top Duterte advisor Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa over allegations of his involvement in human rights violations.
His announcement of the end of the VFA was probably Duterte’s biggest move so far regarding his longstanding threats to downgrade ties with Washington. The US ruled the Philippines for five decades before granting it independence in 1946. For the US, alliance with the Philippines signifies a major military and political partnership, needed to contain China’s maritime and military expansion in Southeast Asia and beyond.
In the past, Duterte has criticized US policy towards his country, terming the Philippines’ role in the partnership “like a dog on a leash.” Reportedly, he even said that the presence of US troops in the Philippines makes the country a possible target for hostility from other parties.
However, his contempt for the US military presence is not necessarily shared by the country’s general public, who still favor a close relationship with the US. The continued suspension of the decision to terminate the bilateral agreement perhaps shows that Duterte is looking for dialogue and may not terminate the agreement at all.
Does the Philippines want a better defense partnership with the United States?
With the announcement that he was terminating the VFA, Duterte may have harmed his own position. Irrespective of all anti-US rhetoric, the Philippines doesn’t stand to gain anything by severing ties with the US.
In fact, Duterte may have been following a policy that aims to move the bilateral relationship beyond its current balance, in which the Philippines doesn’t maximize its strategic gains. It is also possible that Manila’s warming ties with Russia and China have offered Duterte space to act on his frustration over not getting better trade and defense deals with the US. Already, by getting closer to China and Russia, Duterte has shown that he aims to follow a superpower-neutral foreign policy, in which ties with the US shouldn’t come at the cost of relationships with Beijing and Moscow.
In 2016, during Duterte’s first state visit to China, Filipino foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay, who accompanied him, said that all disputes regarding the South China Sea could take years or even a “lifetime” to resolve. However, “This should not be an impediment or a barrier in fostering our closer ties with each other,” Yasay said, referring to his country’s relationship with China.
“As we renew our ties with this great nation [China], it does not mean that we are weakening ties with the rest of the members of the international community. This is at the core of the independent foreign policy that our president has moved and put forward,” he added.
In 2017, Duterte visited a Russian warship docked in Manila, in a gesture aimed at warming ties with Moscow. The move, perhaps, was another signal from Duterte to Washington that his policy of diversifying the Philippines’ foreign policy cannot be blocked. With the option to deepen defense partnerships with China and Russia, Duterte hopes to use the looming termination of the VFA as a threat to renegotiate a better defense deal with the US.
For the Philippines, a better defense agreement should focus more on assisting the country in its fight against domestic militancy, rather than targeting China’s—and perhaps Russia’s—role in the region.
Last month, the Filipino ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel Romualdez, said in a statement that Duterte’s government values its relationship with the US as well as others. “It’s not fair to say Duterte is really just cozying up to China and it’s a zero-sum game,” the ambassador said. “We would like to have relations with all countries. We feel that our interests will be best protected by reaching out to major countries like China and even Russia to do what is best for our country.”
Explaining Duterte’s confrontational policy towards the Washington, Derek Grossman, senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, said that “For the Duterte government’s perspective, there’s too much focus from the United States on US-China great power competition and arming the Philippines to deal with China, rather than arming the Philippines so that the Philippines can do other missions as well.”
“By delaying the VFA further, they are keeping the agreement intact but also putting some pressure on negotiators to come up with a better deal,” he added.
Going forward, Duterte would want three things from the incoming government in the US. First, he would want incoming President Joe Biden’s administration to stop treating the Philippines as a post to monitor China and Russia’s roles in the region.
Second, the Philippines would expect a renegotiated VFA agreement that involves more cooperation to contain militant groups in the country. For years, the Philippines has struggled to contain militancy in the restive southern island of Mindanao.
Third, the Philippines would like the US to pledge not to intervene in foreign policy decisions, particularly its defense partnerships with China and Russia. As it seems, Duterte is more interested in a superpower-neutral foreign policy than in choosing between powerful “rivals”.