By Aie Balagtas See
The 70-year-old defense alliance between Manila and Washington is back on track after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would fully restore a key bilateral military pact following his meeting with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin in Manila, officials announced Friday.
The U.S. defense secretary visited the Philippine capital as he wrapped up a weeklong tour of three Southeast Asian countries located in the heart of the contested South China Sea, a geopolitical issue that headlined the agenda during his stops in Singapore, Hanoi and Manila.
On Friday, Austin’s Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, who challenged recent incursions by Chinese ships into Philippine-claimed territory in strategic waterway, announced the decision about the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.
“Last night, after the meeting between Secretary Austin and the president … the president decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA,” Lorenzana told reporters during a joint press conference with Austin.
“So the VFA is in full force again. There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track,” he said, adding that Duterte’s letter informing Washington of his plan will be “retracted as if nothing happened.”
Lorenzana’s announcement reverses Duterte’s February 2020 pronouncement to scrap the 22-year-old pact after Washington had denied a U.S. visa to Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, his former national police chief and main enforcer of his administration’s bloody war on drugs.
Duterte would later rescind that decision after Washington, under then-President Donald Trump, reinstated dela Rosa’s visa, but the VFA needed to be renewed every six months. At the time of the last renewal in February, Duterte told the U.S. to pay for the right of American troops to stay in the Philippines.
At their joint news conference, Lorenza and Austin both emphasized that the military pact was back for good – meaning military drills and exercises in Philippine territory involving U.S. troops would proceed unhampered.
Duterte’s office, meanwhile, said that the president and Austin had an “open and frank” discussion on Thursday focused on enhancing the two countries’ military cooperation in the South China Sea.
According to Duterte’s office, both men “agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments.”
On Friday, Lorenzana and Austin discussed the way ahead for the Philippine-U.S. alliance.
“This visit is another manifestation of the shared commitment to the alliance between our defense establishments and the inherent risks and challenges of the times,” Lorenzana said.
Responding to a question on Friday about Duterte’s decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was aware, but did not specifically comment about it.
“China always maintains that state-to-state exchanges and cooperation should not only benefit the countries concerned but also regional and global peace and stability,” he said.
Austin said he was pleased to visit the Philippines to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the alliance in person. He also thanked Duterte for restoring the Visiting Forces Agreement.
“Our countries face a range of challenges from the climate crisis to the pandemic. And as we do, a strong, resilient, U.S.-Philippines alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said in a statement released by the Pentagon. “A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal.”
Austin also said he had a “productive discussion” on Friday with Lorenzana on maritime and counterterrorism cooperation along with efforts to modernize the Philippine military.
“We also talked about how we can work toward a free and open Indo-Pacific rooted in a rules-based international order, a region in which countries work together to realize their highest aspirations and to safeguard the rights of all other citizens,” he said.
During a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin repeated the U.S. view that China’s claim to almost all the South China Sea “has no basis in international law” and “treads on the sovereignty of states in the region,” according to a transcript from the Pentagon.
“Unfortunately, Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water,” Austin said.
Later, while in Hanoi, he assured Vietnam that he was not seeking to force that nation to choose between China and the U.S., saying allies and partners should have the “freedom and space to chart their own futures.”
President Duterte, whose six-year term ends in less than a year, has spent much of his time in office building up Manila’s relationship with Beijing while backing off on bilateral ties with Washington.
In late August, the U.S. and the Philippines will mark the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty, under which the two allies are bound to come to each other’s military aid if one of them comes under attack from another power.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that America would invoke that treaty if Philippine ships or aircraft came under attack in the South China Sea – an indirect warning aimed at Beijing, which has vast territorial claims in the maritime region.
Despite his efforts, analysts have said Duterte and the defense establishment have been under pressure from the public and the political opposition over China’s continued expansion in the South China Sea. Earlier this year, government patrols reported spotting 240 Chinese ships in Philippine waters.
Geopolitics analyst Chester Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, noted that the burden of proof that Duterte’s announcement has repaired ties with Washington has yet to be seen.
He said Duterte, in his final State of the Nation speech to Congress on Monday, showed he has not closed the door on diplomatic efforts with Beijing. The president had previously said he was indebted to Chinese leader Xi Jinping for Beijing’s help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The U.S. has to work harder as China enjoys preferential treatment in the Philippines,” Cabalza told BenarNews.