The Pros And Cons Of The Philippines-US Military Decoupling – Analysis


The Philippines has notified the U.S. of its intention to abrogate their 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in six months.  This has elicited a wide spectrum of responses ranging from ‘this will be a disaster for US strategy in Asia, and for the Philippines – to – ‘this will be of great long term benefit to both.  The likely outcome is somewhere in between these extremes.

The context is important. The US military has had a presence in the Philippines at least since it took over colonial rule from Spain in 1898.  The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to its independence in 1946.  Since 1951 the Philippines and the U.S. have had a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) which under certain conditions provides that each would support the other if either were attacked.  Under this arrangement the U.S. had large bases in the Philippines of strategic importance to its continued regional dominance– Subic naval base and Clark air force base. The U.S. supported the brutal Marcos dictatorship until he was overthrown by a popular rebellion. Many Filipinos considered this and the bases as evidence of US imperialism and wanted the bases closed. 

The two parties could not agree on the terms of extending the leases and in 1992, the Philippines canceled the lease and the US troops departed.  In 1999 the VFA was negotiated to provide a framework for temporary deployment of US forces in the country for training with Filipino forces including, most controversially, which country has jurisdiction over US troops who commit crimes in the country. _(Philippines_%E2%80%93_United_States) 

In 2016, an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was negotiated to allow the rotate troops into the Philippines and to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases.  Its implementation has been delayed by the Duterte administration.

Many think the abrogation of the VFA may make EDCA moot and threaten the very basis of the US-Philippines military alliance – – the MDT.    This was corroborated by Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. who indicated that ‘without the VFA, the MDT would be “hollow” and the EDCA “practically useless.”

An example of “the sky is falling reaction” is that of Derek Grossman of Rand who holds that the collapse of the alliance would send the “message to Washington’s remaining allies and partners that you simply shouldn’t trust that the US will defend or assist you against China.  James Stavridis, former NATO commander says the Philippines is “critically important to American security and geopolitical influence.” James Holmes of the Naval War College thinks terminating the VFA “could ripple throughout Southeast Asia to the detriment of _ _ US maritime strategy toward China”. The reason that the abrogation could be a threat to U.S. China strategy is that it would deny the U.S. a forward base to deter and contain China – either with intermediate range missiles or the projection of conventional air and sea power. 

Some officials in the US government are clearly worried.  According to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper – –  it would be a move in the wrong direction as we _ _ are trying to say to the Chinese:  You must obey the international rules of order.”   Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phil Davidson fears that ending the defense relationship would undermine the counter terrorism campaign in the Philippines south.   

A few Filipino commentators worry that it would leave the Philippines vulnerable to China’s aggression in the South China Sea.  Constant Duterte critic former Supreme Courte Justice Antonio Carpio thinks that the only reason that China did not occupy and build on the disputed Scarborough Shoal was the MDT and that without it the Philippines will now be vulnerable to that. Before the decision was final, Locsin argued for maintaining the VFA saying that “the continuance of the agreement is deemed to more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any predicates were it to be terminated.”  

However, at the other end of the spectrum are completely opposite views based on the same facts. Some US analysts think this development could benefit the U.S. on the long term.  Lyle Goldstein at the Naval War College, argues that “U.S. taxpayers, servicemen, and strategists alike should thank the hot-headed leader for helping to inject a major dose of reality into contemporary American strategy formulation.  It provides an opportunity to think anew about the vastly over-extended U.S. defense commitments across the whole Asia-Pacific region.”  Perennial conservative pundit Pat Buchanan agrees, writing that it could stimulate a “revisit and review [of]all the defense alliances and war guarantees entered into 60 and 70 years ago, to address threats that no longer exist in a world that no longer exist”.   Some argue that there is no vital interest at stake for the U.S. in defending the Philippines’ claims to rocks and maritime claims in the South China Sea.  Indeed they see this Philippine move as an opportunity for the U.S. to extricate itself from being drawn into a conflict with China on its behalf. .”   President Donald Trump simply quipped “I don’t really mind if they would like to do that, it will save a lot of money.”

  Some Filipino nationalists consider this a positive milestone for the Philippines and Filipinos.  Duterte himself told China in 2016 that “I want may be in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops.” Walden Bello – a frequent critic of Duterte –sees the “the MDT and the VFA [as] vestiges of a colonial past that subordinated the country’s national interest to the strategic designs of the United States in the Asia Pacific”.   

There are also practical reasons why it could benefit the Philippines in the long run.  As Presidential spokesman Salvador Parelo said “Visiting Forces Agreement is not advantageous to us because the more we rely on them, the more our position weakens and stagnates our defenses.” Duterte thinks American power in the region is waning and that China’s is rising. He is unsure if America will back up the Philippines in a conflict with China. He also believes that the Philippines will have to live with and get along with China for the long term.   Besides, allowing the U.S. to continue to use the Philippines as part of their anti-China defense/offense would make it a target if hostilities broke out between the U.S. and China. Worse Duterte thinks that the U.S. might use the situation to spark a wider conflict that no regional country wants. Becoming more neutral militarily is more compatible with this view.

Despite these extreme positions there is much middle ground—and some wiggle room. The two have nearly six months to negotiate an alternative outcome. Indeed some see this move as part of Duterte’s strategy” to win concessions from either Washington or Beijing by playing the two nations off one another”. If so, he is playing a dangerous game. One possible result is the alienation of both China and the U.S.. He is also making his administration and country a possible target of regime change

Others point out that scrapping the VFA does not automatically end the EDCA or the MDT. Goldstein thinks that “Washington might wish to leave the bare bones of the alliance in place as a deterrent” to China—and to prevent China from acquiring military bases in the Philippines. Stavridis agrees suggesting that the VFA can be replaced with a “VFA lite” acceptable to both. Locsin has proposed that the agreement be renegotiated rather than terminated. Collin Koh of Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies suggests that the U.S. can compensate for the end of its alliance with the Philippines by enhancing military cooperation with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia , and maybe with Australia and Papua New Guinea as well.

 I would be surprised if this incipient rift became a permanent decoupling. There really is too much to lose too quickly for both. I suspect the U.S. will wait out Duterte and try to repair the relationship with his successor. But Duterte’s move should stimulate some soul searching and rethinking by both parties and perhaps eventually result in a more equitable and thus stable relationship.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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