Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte has just breathed new life into his nation’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. That’s excellent news, because you don’t have to believe that China designed the COVID-19 virus to see that it’s been taking advantage of it — and showing us the future if the U.S. and its allies don’t stand strong. That includes the Philippines, America’s oldest ally in the region.
We all know that China took advantage of the world’s pandemic to declare an end to the more than two decades of what was essentially Hong Kong autonomy. Beijing has been flexing its muscles elsewhere as well during that time. Specifically with the Philippines, it just edged further into the disputed Spratly Islands, by creating two new districts on artificial islands as well as by designating an administration center.”
That’s why it was strange that Duterte in February announced that within six months the Philippines would abrogate the treaty with the United States unless the two countries renegotiated it — and just as strange that President Trump responded by saying that would be “fine” because “we’ll save a lot of money.”
Under the VFA, U.S. military aircraft and vessels are allowed free entry into the Philippines. U.S. military personnel are subject to relaxed visa and passport policies. Abrogating the agreement would put at risk roughly 300 joint military exercises and engagements, says R. Clarke Cooper, U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
The VFA is not the entire Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1951, but it’s the “nuts and bolts,” Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation told Voice of America. The Mutual Defense Treaty would be severely weakened, and the Chinese regime would be delighted.
China has been fairly open about its aim to take over the world within a generation. Economically, that is. But it sees staking a military claim to anything nearby as a step toward that goal — especially in the South China Sea, where the Philippines lie.
That’s where the regime has been aggressively seeking to expand against not only the Philippines but many other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Indeed, those islands that China has just pushed further into were awarded to the Philippines four years ago by an intergovernmental arbitration panel.
Without allies, the U.S. cannot contain the fast-growing nation of 1.4 billion. Yet relations with South Korea have cooled so much that last year it signed a defense agreement with China — ironic given that the U.S. is technically at war with China because of Korea. Guam with its naval and airbases is vital, but also vulnerable. Of eleven U.S. supercarriers, only three or four are available at any one time and may be called on to defend Taiwan.
Further, the Philippines’ 7,000 islands covered with thick jungle canopies have long been refuges for terrorists and other subversives, now including ISIS. U.S. troops aren’t allowed to engage them directly, but noncombat aid is necessary to keeping them in check. ISIS anywhere is a threat to the U.S. and the world.
Duterte first announced his intention to abrogate the treaty under President Obama, who did nothing about it. But it was Duterte’s 2018 trip to China — during which he received promises of aid for building infrastructure (possible) and sharing the disputed islands (highly doubtful) — that really led to this. Again, taking advantage of COVID-19, China is sending goodies to the Philippines such as medical equipment and supplies.
Given events in Syria and Ukraine, Duterte could also be worried about the strength of the U.S. commitment. When America gives some allies reasons to mistrust it, the others notice.
But this sudden Duterte turnaround, even though it’s just a suspension of what’s technically a still-intended move, indicates that the Filipino president is rethinking the whole thing. There’s no other explanation. He knows the Chinese government never does anything out of the goodness of a heart it doesn’t have.
It gives more time for him and Trump (or possibly Trump’s successor, depending on the outcome of the November election) to negotiate a deal to preserve the VFA. And a lot of people are urging them to use what Trump has called “a great relationship” between them to get the job done.
Current and former officials in both countries want to keep the VFA. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called abrogating the agreement “a move in the wrong direction.” Albert del Rosario, a former foreign-affairs secretary for the Philippines, says that abrogation would be a “national tragedy.” The Philippines shouldn’t be “casting aside a long time reliable ally in favor of an aggressive neighbor that has been blatantly demonstrating its lack of respect for international law,” he said in a statement.
Del Rosario isn’t the only Filipino who feels this way. After all, Americans and Filipinos have strong historic ties: They fought side by side from 1941 to 1945, shedding blood and losing lives to throw out brutal Japanese invaders. Filipinos haven’t forgotten. Indeed, the nation to which they still feel closest couldn’t be farther away geographically, and English is one of the two official languages of the country.
Neither Duterte nor Trump may intend to end this needed relationship. But if they’re not careful, those hard-won ties can unravel. Today the Philippines, those 7,000 islands, and its over 100 million people are still vital to American interests. And this time, if we lose them, to paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, we shall not return.