Just a few months after announcing that his country was ending the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has reversed that decision, as territorial disputes with China pressured him to act.

As Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. posted on social media, the decision’s reversal came “in light of the political and other developments in the region.”

“We look forward [sic] continuing our strong military partnership with the United States, even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense towards enduring stability, peace, and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Locsin said.

Duterte had announced in February that he was giving the United States 180 days notice, after which period he would end the VFA. He had stated that the Philippines needed to rely more on its own resources to defend itself. The VFA, which allowed American military aircraft and vessels free entry into the Philippines and relaxes visa restrictions for U.S. military personnel, has been in effect since 1988. 

Duterte had been currying favor from the Chinese for several years, despite the fact that the two sides have increasingly been at odds with each other over territorial disputes.

In his public comments, Duterte had insisted on singing the praises of Beijing, often at the expense of the United States. Back in 2018, he welcomed the economic development offered by the Chinese government, stating that, “I need China. More than anybody else at this point, I need China.”

However, his announcement to end the VFA did not make his territorial disputes with China easier to negotiate. The Chinese saw an opportunity and exploited it, showing their increasing belligerence in the region. 

The Chinese claim nearly all of the South China Sea as their own on historical grounds. In 2016, a tribunal in the Hague ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea and that the Philippines were the rightful owners of that part of the sea. Nonplussed, the government of President Xi Jinping offered Duterte an olive branch. China offered the Filipinos a controlling interest in a joint energy deal in return for ignoring the Hague’s ruling.