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.
But Duterte’s actions with the U.S. only increased the Chinese intentions to occupy the disputed territory and when Filipino vessels ventured close offshore, they targeted them with missile radar tracking.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, have been at odds for decades in a conflict over mostly barren islands, reefs, atolls and rich fishing waters in the South China Sea.
The chief of the disputed reefs is called the “Fiery Cross Reef” or Kagitingan in Filipino. It is located in the Spratly Islands. The Chinese have turned Fiery Cross into one of their most advanced island bases in the disputed sea. They have equipped it with missile shelters, structures with retractable roofs, radars, and a runway. Since early April, the Chinese have moved advanced anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance aircraft to Fiery Cross Reef.
Not so coincidentally, shortly after Duterte’s February announcement canceling the VFA with the U.S., a Filipino navy ship sailed by the disputed area. Chinese radar operators targeted the ship with one of their own ships’ missile radar controls.
Duterte has been forced to reevaluate his relationship with both China and the U.S. and at least for now… welcomes the help of the American military. The U.S. Embassy in Manila welcomed the change of heart. “Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” the U.S. Embassy released in a statement.
Ironically, just a month ago, Locsin had insisted that there was no way that the Philippines would restart the VFA with the U.S., “We are never going back to the Visiting Forces Agreement but there are other enduring-predictable, not just ad hoc- ways of cooperation to give muscle memory to the Mutual Defense Treaty without which we would be an Oriental slave state,” Locsin had said on Twitter.
Yet, it turned out that the Chinese belligerent actions have changed things for the time being.