The Philippines has rescinded its decision to scrap a key defence pact that allows American troops to hold military exercises in the country, as it recalibrates its relations with its oldest ally in view of the coronavirus pandemic and China’s latest actions in contested waters.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said in a Twitter post late on Tuesday that the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington was suspended for six months upon President Rodrigo Duterte’s instruction.
In a news briefing yesterday, Mr Locsin said Mr Duterte “changed his mind” because of the “vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, the time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions”.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Mr Duterte realised that with the pandemic, “we need to cooperate with other countries”.
“It’s not timely to end the VFA at this time,” he said, adding that the Philippines would maintain its schedule of joint military exercises with the United States for now.
He said he expected the US to step up its assistance, as the Philippines struggles to contain the pandemic.
On Monday, the Philippines eased one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in Asia, after health officials reported that there had been fewer deaths from Covid-19 and hospitals were no longer overwhelmed by sick patients.
But the domestic economy has stalled because of the lockdown, with five million Filipinos forecast to be jobless by the year end and many companies shutting down.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez told ABS-CBN news channel that the situation in the South China Sea had also been considered. “The political reason is there’s quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest after Beijing divided the disputed sea into two districts: one for the Paracel island chain and the other for the Spratlys, which spans waters, reefs, atolls and islands that an international tribunal had ruled are inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Security officials also recently revealed that a Chinese warship had its guns aimed at a Philippine Navy corvette during a brief encounter near a disputed reef.
Signed in 1998, the VFA gives legal cover to thousands of US troops who are rotated to the Philippines for military exercises and humanitarian assistance operations.
MANY ONGOING ISSUES
The political reason is there’s quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea.
PHILIPPINE AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S. JOSE MANUEL ROMUALDEZ, on how the situation in the South China Sea had also been considered.
Foreign policies can be flexible at times, depending on the realities obtained in the bilateral, regional or global area of foreign relations.
PHILIPPINE SENATOR RONALD DELA ROSA, on his support for President Rodrigo Duterte in keeping the defence pact.
In January, Mr Duterte threatened to repeal the pact over a US decision to deny entry to his political ally Ronald dela Rosa.
Mr dela Rosa was a police chief who served as an enforcer of Mr Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown in 2016. Thousands of mostly poor suspects were killed under the campaign, alarming the US and other Western governments.
Mr dela Rosa, who is now a senator, said he supported Mr Duterte’s decision to stick with the VFA for now. “Foreign policies can be flexible at times, depending on the realities obtained in the bilateral, regional or global area of foreign relations,” he said.
Calling Mr Duterte’s reversal “shameful”, the left-leaning New Patriotic Alliance said: “It shows that the Philippine government is not at all serious in its decision to scrap this unequal treaty and assert national sovereignty.”
Mr Duterte’s allies had tried to dissuade him from terminating the VFA, saying a review would be a more appropriate response.
Mr Locsin had previously said that abrogating the accord would undermine the Philippines’ security and foster aggression in the South China Sea.
It would have meant scrapping more than 300 joint activities with US forces “which the Philippine military and law enforcement agencies need to enhance their capabilities in countering threats to national security”, he said.
American forces have provided intelligence, training and aid that allowed the Philippines to deal with human trafficking, cyber attacks, illegal narcotics and terrorism.
US military presence has also served as a deterrent to aggressive actions in the South China Sea, said Mr Locsin.
The US Embassy in the Philippines said it welcomes Manila’s decision. “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defence cooperation with the Philippines,” it said.
The Philippines had also considered reviewing a separate defence pact signed in 2014 – the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement.
That agreement allowed the extended stay of US forces and authorised them to build and maintain barracks and warehouses, and store defence equipment and weapons at five military camps.