Election Frontrunners Support the Visiting Forces Agreement

Last January 22, 2022, veteran Philippine journalist Jessica Soho interviewed the leading presidential candidates as the May 2022 Philippine Presidential Elections drew nearer. One of the hotly contested topics asked was about the presidentiables’ stances on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The military pact was threatened to be terminated by current President Rodrigo Duterte in 2020. This was after the US canceled the visa of Duterte’s right-hand former Chief of the Philippine National Police, Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa. Dela Rosa was a central figure in the Philippines’ deadly drug war.

Philippine Presidential Candidates from left to right: Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno, Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, boxing icon Senator Manny Pacquiao. Image from GMA News/Youtube.

Four out of five of the leading Philippine presidentiables voted yes to the resumption of the VFA. Namely current Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, boxing icon Senator Manny Pacquiao, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, and Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno. Note that former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. declined to show up for the event.

But a lot of you might be wondering, what exactly is the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines? What does it do for the United States Armed Forces? Why is it important for peace in the region? Read this first part of a multi-tiered series.

A Shared Military History

The United States and the Philippines have an extensive, shared military history that resonates even in the 21st century. From being enemies during the Philippine-American War in 1899 to being brothers-in-arms during World War I and World War II, Americans and Filipinos have shared defeats and victories across all fronts throughout history.

With all the shared history, where does the VFA stem from? It originates from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the United States and the Philippines.

In an attempt to solidify military relations, the two countries entered the said mutual defense treaty in August 1951. The agreement essentially promises both countries that they would mutually defend one another in the case of an external armed attack in the Pacific area or any of their territories and instrumentalities. This means mobilizing the necessary troops from the Philippine army, the navy, and US units closest to the archipelago to respond to any external threats.

The treaty was signed by World War II Veteran Carlos Romulo, a general both in the US and Philippine armies, and the 51st US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Romulo was also the military aide of General Douglas MacArthur during WWII.

The Visiting Forces Agreement In A Nutshell

This brings us to the 90s, specifically in 1998 when the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was crafted to strengthen the decades-old mutual defense treaty. Think of it as a renewal of trust between the two nations with extended military rights for the Americans on Philippine territory.

The MDT stipulates that if any of the two countries were to be attacked within the Pacific or on the countries themselves and any of their instrumentalities – whether armed forces, military, and public vessels and aircraft, both countries would respond in unity.

US Army participating in Balikatan 2017 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Nashaunda Tilghman/DVIDS)

The VFA, on the other hand, was crafted as a response to the Philippines’ termination of the proposed RP-US Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Peace in 1991. This proposed pact would extend the presence of the US armed forces in key military installations in the Philippines, one being the Subic Naval Base.

So what exactly does the VFA do?

VFA for Criminal Jurisdiction

For starters, the Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement is a legal instrument for the United States to have jurisdiction over US personnel, whether military or civilian individuals, who were accused of crimes domestically committed in the Philippines. The treaty makes it possible for the US government to take responsibility for the trial, detention, and punishment of any US personnel accused of a crime when:

  • The crime was committed against the property, people, and/or security of the United States.
  • An offense was committed outside of official duty.

Enhanced Military Movements and Tax Incentives

Military entrance and departure and the movement of US personnel and soldiers in the Philippines are also covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement. US forces are exempted from passport and visa regulations typically required by airports and seaports in the Philippines. More so, aircraft, vessels, and vehicles operated by the United States may enter Philippine territory as long as there is approval from the Philippines. They also enter free of change without port and landing fees.

US personnel can also drive using US government-owned vehicles with their US license. The US armed forces also enjoy duty-free and tax-free importation and acquisition of any military-related materials, supplies, and other similar objects.

Note that there were multiple agreements before and after the VFA, so if you want to learn more about them, stay tuned to our other articles included in this series.

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Philippine Army Training with the US

Balikatan 2016
Balikatan 2016. The 25th Infantry Division is seen here instructing US soldiers (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Meillettis Gardne/DVIDS)

The VFA is a tool used by the Philippine army to train their armed forces with the help of the United States. For example, the Balikatan Exercises (known as the shoulder-to-shoulder exercises in English) enable the Philippines and the United States to have military exercises that develop the skills of both parties through enhanced training in hand-to-hand combat, counterterrorism, and even providing humanitarian assistance to each other.

Increased Stability In The Region

The VFA was notably instrumental in the containment policy of China’s expansionist claims on the West Philippine Sea (also known as the South China Sea), wherein a group of islands is continually disputed by Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

China claims the entire expanse of the seas through a 9-dash line that encompasses all Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) for all countries involved. Former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had said that the international law is clear on the matter, that there is no legal basis for the Chinese claim on the islands and that the US aligns itself with the historical Philippine legal win against the Chinese claims filed under the Permanent Court of Arbitration pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Current US Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed such rhetoric in his visit to Indonesia in December 2021, stating that:

“Five years ago, an international tribunal delivered a unanimous and legally binding decision firmly rejecting unlawful, expansive South China Sea maritime claims as being inconsistent with international law. We and other countries, including South China Sea claimants, will continue to push back on such behavior,”

In fact, just a few days ago, on January 20, 2022, the USS Benfold of the 7th Fleet conducted a freedom of navigation exercise near the Paracel Islands in an attempt to uphold international law. Through the VFA, the US, along with France and the United Kingdom, in response to Chinese naval aggression in the region, has conducted freedom of navigation exercises to further international law on the high seas.

The Source Of Political Debate In The Philippines

Activists and politicians alike in the Philippines are heavily divided with the implementation of the VFA. Members of the left have historically opposed the VFA, often stating that it is a form of neocolonialism and neo-imperialism on the part of the United States. Others have a different view, seeing that the VFA is needed for upholding security within the West Philippine Sea.

What’s Next For The VFA

Since it is an executive agreement, only the President of the Philippines can terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, much like how President Rodrigo Duterte tried and failed to intimidate former US President Donald Trump with the attempted termination of the VFA. This comes with the Mindanaoan president’s personal ties and leanings toward Beijing due to the Build Build Build Infrastructure Project.

With the US-Philippine security alliance at stake, the next Philippine president does have some thinking to do. Will it continue the current trajectory of leaning toward the Chinese, enhance army cooperation with the US and other allies, or stand alone in the fight for sovereignty within its coastal regions?