Patrick Flannery | Indo-Pacific Fellow
The United States (US) faces a continuing strategic challenge as it attempts to promote human rights while maintaining positive relations with its partners in the Indo-Pacific. In January, Washington decided to revoke Filipino Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s US visa for his role in overseeing Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. In February, the Philippines responded by notifying the US of its intention to terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries.
The VFA works alongside the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which enables US troops to conduct joint military exercises and training with the Philippines. Without it, the MDT has been compared to a ‘deflated balloon’. However, there is still time to negotiate. Article IX of the VFA provides that it will remain in force for 180 days from the date of notification. But the clock is ticking and neither side seems willing to craft a new deal.
No New Deal In Sight
Over the years, Duterte has not attempted to hide his disdain for America, a deep-held hatred founded in personal circumstances, political views, and history. Dela Rosa’s visa cancellation is widely thought to have merely provided a convenient excuse for Duterte to cut ties and rebalance with China and Russia.
Filipino views of the US are some of the most positive in the world, but domestic support for Duterte and his drug war is also very high. Framing the VFA termination as standing up to imperialism and championing Filipino sovereignty allows Duterte to sell the move to his constituents, who are wary of Beijing.
For his part, Trump says he doesn’t care that the VFA was cancelled, stating that it would save the US money. The US provided the Philippines half a billion dollars in security assistance from 2016 to 2019. Ever the businessman, agreements like the VFA do not seem to warrant the price. Trump is no fan of the costly US alliance structure, and his voting base welcomes his “America First” withdrawal from the international system. Duterte responded positively to Trump’s response, stating that “he deserves to be re-elected.”
Professor John Blaxland suggests the VFA termination may merely be a negotiating tactic on Duterte’s part to force US concessions. If this is so, then Trump may have called Duterte’s bluff. But given Duterte’s views of the US and recent comments, he could very well follow through.
With both leaders in their respective corners, this could become a waiting game. If Duterte wants to leverage or to end the agreement for good, he needs to run the clock down. But Trump can also wait. Duterte is currently under pressure from senators to reinstate the VFA. Additionally, Duterte may be compelled to act if something external were to happen, such as an insurgent flare-up in Mindanao, a natural disaster or an act of Chinese aggression.
Waiting In The Wings
Of course, China would be wise to wait. The Philippines has assured the global community that it will be seeking a raft of new agreements with countries like Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. Its only remaining visiting forces agreement is with Australia. Manila is stressing self-reliance and multiple partners, but China is the elephant in the room.
The VFA termination decision endangers around 300 annual Filipino-US military training exercises and engagements on land and sea. Without their deterrent effect, China may be emboldened to behave more assertively.
The Philippines has previously disputed Chinese incursions in their maritime territory. But, despite the international court ruling in the Philippines favour, Duterte may not press the claims. Xi Jinping has offered him a deal to jointly explore oil and gas in the South China Sea.
China’s northernmost outpost on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands is a mere 25 kilometres from civilian populations in the Philippines. But it is Scarborough Shoal where the Philippines draws the line. However, a joint deal may legitimise Chinese claims.
Recently, rumours arose of up to 3000 Chinese troops conducting intelligence operations within the Philippines without the government’s knowledge. US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, who called the VFA termination a ‘move in the wrong direction’, has urged the world to wake up to the threat posed by China.
Much At Stake
There is nothing wrong with the Philippines wanting greater sovereignty and weaning itself off dependence on the US. The VFA is not without its issues. But the circumstances surrounding the termination suggest different motivations
Those that see the budgetary cost of the VFA miss the bigger picture of the agreement for the US’ national security. The South China Sea carries an estimated one-third of global maritime trade and sits on substantial oil reserves. On top of this, it undermines US guarantees in the Indo-Pacific at a time when countries are looking for leadership. Dr Prashanth Parameswaran has dubbed it the biggest post-Cold War blow to any US treaty alliance arrangement in Asia.
The VFA also benefits Manila. The advanced military technology and training the US provides assists in bolstering a Filipino force that is one of the weakest militaries in the Indo-Pacific.
The trick is to negotiate a new deal that will be accepted by both leaders, something akin to the agreement the Philippines has with Australia. This ‘VFA-light’ would need to provide greater respect for Filipino sovereignty and could involve fewer boots on the ground and more technology sharing, autonomous technologies, and AI.
But if there is a lack of political will on both sides, negotiations will falter and the VFA will perish with a whimper.
Patrick Flannery is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.