By Jojo Rinoza and Marielle Lucenio
President Rodrigo Duterte warned Washington on Friday that it would “have to pay” to preserve a 22-year-old bilateral military pact, as Manila negotiates with the new U.S. administration on extending the Visiting Forces Agreement, which he has threatened to scrap.
The Philippine leader made the remarks while inspecting Air Force assets north of Manila, a day after officials from the governments of the two longtime defense allies began talks on the issue of renewing the 1999 VFA.
“I would like to put on notice if there’s an American agent here that from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement done? Well, they have to pay,” Duterte said. “It’s a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free. Because after all, when the war breaks out, we all pay.”
Duterte did not go into detail on how the United States would have to pay – or what it would have to pay for – to keep the pact alive.
The VFA allows for large-scale joint military exercises in the Philippines between the two allies. The pact came about after the United States vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, both located northwest of Manila – after the Cold War ended in the 1990s. It also governs the U.S. military presence in the Southeast Asian country and places American forces there under United States jurisdiction.
However, the text of the agreement makes no mention of payments.
A year ago this month, soon after Duterte first threatened to annul the VFA, then-U.S. President Donald Trump indicated he wouldn’t mind if Manila did that because, he said, it would save the United States “a lot of money.”
In a statement on Friday, the U.S. State Department did not respond to Duterte’s call for Washington to pay for the VFW when BenarNews sought reactions to his comments.
“We value our alliance with the Philippines, which is the oldest in the Asia-Pacific region, and we will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that furthers shared security challenges and respects human rights,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement. “Open dialogue between allies is essential to maintaining the strength of an alliance which is vital to both of our countries’ security.”
Also on Friday, Duterte emphasized that if hostilities were to break out between Washington and Beijing, the Philippines would be the nearest landmass to a Chinese garrison. Although the Philippine president did not identify it, China recently upgraded its defense arsenal on an island in the disputed South China Sea.
He said that the southwestern island of Palawan was the “nearest possible and convenient outpost” for the U.S. if it were to establish a base in the country.
Duterte said he was “walking on a tightrope” between geopolitical interests of the U.S. and China. Washington, under the Trump administration, had blacklisted Chinese firms found to have participated in construction activities in the South China Sea.
“I cannot afford to be brave in the mouth against China because, well, we are avoiding any confrontation – a confrontation that would lead to something which we can hardly afford, at least not at this time,” Duterte said.
A friend to rival superpowers
In his remarks, Duterte noted that he had been letting the American forces carry out missions here for strategic reasons.
“I am a friend of America, I am a friend of China. But what I don’t like is that they promise you [something but] once they take off, they forget all about it and nobody’s following [up] until you remind them,” Duterte said.
The president spoke out about the VFA one day after Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. confirmed holding a bilateral meeting with U.S. officials on defense, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency (NPA). Locsin did not provide details about the meeting as it “involves our national security and defense.”
On Wednesday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Lloyd Austin his new American counterpart in the Biden administration, discussed the VFA as well as the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty during an introductory phone call.
Duterte last year ordered the VFA cancelled after Washington revoked the visa of a senator who, while serving as his national police chief, had launched the Philippine government’s deadly war on drugs.
In June, the president suspended his cancellation order amid perceptions of increasing Chinese threats in the South China Sea, but by November he called for taking another six months to determine the status of the VFA.