Duterte Yields to Reality on US Forces Pact

Military was deeply uneasy about decision to void the agreement in face of Chinese aggression

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's June 1 decision not to end the Visiting Forces Agreement that governs the actions of US troops on Philippine soil amounts to a recognition that the country’s military was deeply uneasy about the decision to void the agreement, announced on February 11 by Duterte in a fit of pique over the cancellation of a US visa to one of his close allies, the thuggish former national police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.

The extension of the agreement, for six months, clearly represents a victory for US-China hawks, who are growing increasingly nervous about aggressiveness by Beijing in the South China Sea and Hong Kong over recent weeks with the rest of the world preoccupied by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The cancellation was met with astonishment and opposition from Duterte’s defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana and many within his own administration. It would have ended joint military exercises with the US and left the Philippines pretty much at the mercy of Chinese expansionism in waters both to the east on a resource-rich area known as Benham Rise, and to the west on islands on which China has already staked a claim under its so-called “nine-dash line,” largely with Duterte’s acquiescence.  

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced the extension, with a second six-month period “extendible after the tolling of the initial period in Note Verbale (informal notification)…dated February 11, 2020 shall resume.”

Presumably, that is intended to put the US on notice that it had better remain on best behavior over the next year. Malacanang Palace announced the nullification of the agreement between the two countries after the US State Department canceled a visa for dela Rosa, now a member of the Philippine Senate. Dela Rosa directed the first phase of Duterte’s murderous drug war, which has taken the lives of thousands of mainly poor drug users and, according to conjecture, a considerable number of enemies of the police. Duterte later banned all of his cabinet members from visiting the US as well. 

The US Embassy in Manila issued an abbreviated, one-paragraph acknowledgment of the extension, saying that: “The United States welcomes the Philippine government’s decision. Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines.” 

The decision to continue the agreement, according to Gavin Greenwood, a Hong Kong-based senior Asia analyst at G2 Global Risk, “reveals more about the internal dynamics of Philippine power structures than it does the geopolitics of the South China Sea. All indications, based on long-term professional, cultural and personal bonds, left senior officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) deeply uneasy about any political moves that would harm ties with their US counterparts.”

While major joint exercises between the two militaries get most of the press coverage, both the US and the Australian troops in the country focus on training and capacity-building through small special operations teams working closely with frontline Philippine units, as well as the provision of specialized equipment. US intelligence capability, particularly in relation to Islamist radical movements like the Abu Sayyaf, a jihadi/pirate/kidnap-for-ransom group aligned with the Islamic State, is extremely valuable.

“The thought of losing that support, particularly regarding anti-terrorism cooperation, was and is a major concern” said Sam Ramos-Jones, director of business development for the Manila-based PSA Consultancy risk assessment firm. “The relationships between US and Philippine security professionals at the ground and middle levels are extremely robust. The strength of the US-Philippines special relationship and the continuing belief among a majority of military professionals and their American counterparts in shared interests is founded on decades of close cooperation at the ground-level and these dynamics cannot easily be altered by the whims of Malacanang.”

Duterte’s position, Ramos-Jones said, is not monolithic “as he will make policy concessions where doing so is necessary to maintain the balance of interests within his ruling coalition. His original decision to scrap the VFA didn’t have a wide consensus of support within the security and foreign service establishments. China’s continuing and more recently aggressive moves in the West Philippine (South China) Sea are certainly part of that calculus, however perhaps more importantly, Philippine officials had worried about losing out on much-needed counter-terrorism assistance, particularly in Mindanao.” 

Other sources say ongoing negotiations with a consortium of the US private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management and Austal Ltd of Australia over the takeover of cash-strapped Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction shipyard at Subic Bay – one of the Philippines’ largest single employers, with 23,000 workers – may play a role. Scrapping the status of forces agreement could potentially have legal ramifications for its operation by the consortium. The takeover would keep the shipyard out of the hands of Chinese interests and government officials are encouraging that. 

The timing of the announcement may indicate another element in Philippine domestic politics -- Duterte's recognition he could need his generals as the country faces an unprecedented economic downturn due to the ravages of Covid-19, according to Gavin Greenwood.

“It takes little imagination to consider the conversations over golf and during the endless exchange visits that characterize inter-military diplomacy that will have taken place over the past few months between AFP commanders and their US colleagues,” Greenwood said. “At a more elevated level, the decision also has a bearing on the delivery of some useful, if second-hand, military hardware to the AFP as temporarily disturbed old ties are restored.”