A major US ally in the Pacific wants to scrap an important military deal with the US, and that may give China an edge

  • The Philippine president has announced his intention to withdraw from the Visiting Forces Agreement that facilitates the US military presence in his country.
  • The actual end of that pact is still a long way off, but similar decisions in the past left Manila in a weaker position to counter China’s ambitions in the region.
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte followed through on numerous threats to end his country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the US on Tuesday, notifying Washington of his intent to withdraw, triggering a 180-day countdown.

On Friday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said he thought the two sides could reach a political resolution, but recent history suggests the pact’s demise could be an opportunity for China in a strategically valuable region.

Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has repeatedly criticized the US and US officials. The US, which ruled the Philippines as a colony in the first half of the 20th century, remains close with the Philippines and is very popular there – as is Duterte, who had 87% approval in December.

But the Philippine president nevertheless decided to end the VFA, with his spokesman saying it was “time we rely on ourselves” and that the country “will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country.”

While President Donald Trump said he didn’t “really mind,” the US Embassy in the Philippines said it would “carefully consider how best to move forward,” and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it was “a move in the wrong direction.”

Asked on Friday about the decision, McCarthy touted US-Philippine ties.

A Philippine marine looks through the sights on a US Marine Corps M777 towed 155 mm howitzer at Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base in the Philippines, during exercise KAMANDAG 3, October 12, 2019.

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A Philippine marine looks through the sights on a US Marine Corps M777 towed 155 mm howitzer at Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base in the Philippines, during exercise KAMANDAG 3, October 12, 2019.
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US Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert

Washington and Manila have “a long history” of working “very hard together” and of “very strong” military-to-military relations, McCarthy told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. “We have about 175 days to work through this diplomatically. I think we can drive forward to an end state that will work out for all of us politically.”

The US and the Philippines are also bound by the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, but ending the VFA would undercut those and the legal standing US forces have when in the Philippines.

The latter effect would endanger hundreds of military exercises and other military cooperation. US Special Forces troops have been stationed in the Philippines to help fight ISIS-linked militants, and the US military has trained there with other countries in the region. The Philippines has also hosted US troops deployed as part of Pacific Pathways, which is meant to allow US and forces in the region to build stronger partnerships and readiness.

Asked about the effect of the VFA withdrawal on US basing and training, McCarthy said Friday that “conversations are underway” particularly among the White House and State Department.

“The VFA, by changing that would change basically the freedoms that you have to do the training,” McCarthy said, “but this is a very close ally, and we would work through that, but it’s basically [changing] the protocols of how you would work together if it actually goes through.”

Day 181

US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jovanny Rios guides a Philippine marine in a combat life-saver drill during KAMANDAG 2, in the Naval Education Training Center, Zambales, Philippines, October 2, 2018.

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US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jovanny Rios guides a Philippine marine in a combat life-saver drill during KAMANDAG 2, in the Naval Education Training Center, Zambales, Philippines, October 2, 2018.
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US Marine Corps/Pfc. Christian Ayers

There a number of reasons the VFA may ultimately survive. Philippine military and security forces value the relationship, under which they receive military assistance, training, education, and weapons.

Philippine officials have suggested a need to review the VFA “to address matters of sovereignty” but have stopped short of advocating withdrawal. Duterte’s foreign secretary also indicated on Tuesday that the announcement should be seen as a jumping-off point for such negotiations, saying “other reactions have been idiotic.”

But it’s not the first time the Philippines has pulled out of this kind of deal. In 1991, it did not renew a mutual basing agreement, leading to the closure of Naval Base Subic Bay, the largest US base in the Pacific, and the withdrawal of US forces.

Manila “quickly discovered that after it did that it was rendered largely defenseless with its limited military capabilities, and China actually started taking very bold actions in the South China Sea, including the occupation of the Mischief Reef,” Prashanth Parameswaran, a senior editor at The Diplomat, said on The Diplomat podcast.

“We’re now left in a situation where we’re not just hypothetically talking about what might happen,” Parameswaran added. “We actually have a historical record about what happens when the alliance goes through periods like this.”

Duterte has won concessions on other issues by pushing on Washington, Parameswaran said, calling a similar outcome this time the “optimistic scenario,” but in light of the impulsiveness of both Duterte and Trump, there remains “an element of risk.”

Agreements like the VFA take time to negotiate and ratify – after ending the basing agreement in 1991, the two countries weren’t able to establish the VFA until 1998 – and other countries in the region, like Australia and Japan, can’t replace US military assistance to the Philippines, leaving Manila weaker in the face of Chinese ambitions.

“That is the big, worrying scenario about Day 181,” Parameswaran said, “because the Philippine military, it’s building up in terms of its capabilities, but it’s still one of the weakest militaries in the Asia-Pacific, and that’s going to be laid bare on Day 181 if this doesn’t get sorted out.”