Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the U.S. Tuesday that he was scrapping a 2-decade-old defense agreement, throwing one of Washington’s most important security alliances in Asia into disarray.
The termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement — which allows for joint military exercises and facilitates the movement of U.S. defense personnel and equipment in the Philippines — was the culmination of weeks of threats by the mercurial Duterte, who has chafed at U.S. criticism of his human rights record while pursuing closer ties with China and Russia.
Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said Duterte informed the U.S. Embassy in Manila in a letter that he intended to terminate the agreement, which would expire in 180 days unless both nations agree to keep it.
“As the president said, it’s about time we rely on our own resources,” Panelo said at a news conference. “We have to strengthen our own capability as a country relative to the defense of our land.”
U.S. officials say the pact, in effect since 1999, is crucial to the nearly 300 joint military exercises the countries conduct every year and has allowed American troops to assist in counter-terrorism and humanitarian operations in the archipelago nation, a former U.S. territory.
“This is a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippines alliance,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a statement. “We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our strategic interests.”
Analysts said the announcement wasn’t the last word on the agreement, known as the VFA, and that Duterte and President Trump could hammer out their differences before the pact expires.
The Pentagon sees its relationship with the Philippines as a bulwark against China’s growing military ambitions in Southeast Asia. Beijing has built naval installations in the contested waters of the South China Sea and expanded security cooperation with authoritarian governments in Thailand and Cambodia, among other countries.
“The American and Filipino defense establishments will be working frantically to prevent VFA expiration by trying to convince their respective leaders of its value,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp.
“Without the VFA, countering China in the South China Sea and conducting combined counter-terrorism missions in the southern Philippines will be virtually impossible.”
Tensions escalated in recent weeks after the disclosure that the U.S. had revoked the visa of a Philippine senator, Ronald dela Rosa, a former police chief who presided over Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign that left thousands dead.
Although no official reason was given for the visa cancellation, Dela Rosa said he believed it was because of his role in the drug war.
Before that, Duterte had banned three U.S. senators — Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont — from visiting the Philippines after they called for the release of a Philippine lawmaker who was jailed after she spoke out against extrajudicial killings in the drug war.
The three have also sponsored a proposal before the Senate that would ban any Philippine official involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of the lawmaker, Leila de Lima.
Analysts said that by canceling the pact, Duterte, who has denied wrongdoing in the drug war, signaled that he was willing to sacrifice a vital strategic alliance to protect himself and his allies from accountability for the killings.
“It’s a very audacious, risky and even reckless move by Duterte,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst in Manila. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a full frontal assault on an alliance with a country that has a tremendous degree of residual influence over both the Philippine military as well as other centers of power.”
Duterte’s decision came over the objections of senior officials in the Philippines’ security establishment, some of whom were educated in the United States and regard the alliance as a cornerstone of the country’s national security. Before the announcement, Duterte’s defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, had dismissed reports that the pact would be canceled as “fake news.”
In 2017, U.S. special operations troops helped Philippine forces end a months-long siege in the southern town of Marawi by militants allied with Islamic State extremists. Four years earlier, U.S. aircraft and warships helped deliver relief supplies and assisted in search-and-rescue efforts after Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 in the Philippines.
Pentagon officials describe the agreement as key to the countries’ 1951 mutual defense treaty — under which the U.S. pledged to defend the Philippines if it was attacked — because it allows for the free entry of U.S. forces, military aircraft, vessels and supplies.
In a teleconference with reporters before Duterte’s announcement, R. Clarke Cooper, a senior State Department official, said that canceling the agreement could reduce joint military exercises, the number of U.S. troops available to train Philippine forces and the frequency of U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea — one of the key deterrents to China’s widening territorial claims in the waters.
“There is a significant amount of resources that had been invested in that bilateral relationship, and … I don’t think anyone in the government of the Philippines would want to put at risk the numerous engagements,” Cooper said.
Although Duterte has a friendly relationship with Trump — who once said the Philippine leader was doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem” — he has repeatedly criticized the U.S. for meddling in his country’s internal affairs.
Duterte has signed major trade deals with Beijing and — in a departure from his usual strongman’s bluster — generally backed down in the face of Chinese incursions in the Philippines’ territorial waters.
Fewer U.S. naval patrols would embolden China to step up its aggressive policies in the South China Sea, analysts said.
“This undermines the Philippines’ national security in unimaginable ways,” Heydarian said. “And the biggest strategic beneficiary is China.”