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Tuesday, October 12, 2021, 08:22 (GMT+7)
The U.S. and the Philippines repair treaty alliance

US-Philippines relations, which have come under strain over the past 5 years, have apparently warmed again as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to fully restore  the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US of which he ordered  revocation in February 2020. What caused their bilateral relations to turn sour and Manila to abruptly pivot back to Washington has drawn widespread attention.

Mutual interests

The US-Philippines longstanding alliance is grounded in 3 crucial elements, namely:  the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) dictating that both countries would defend each other if either the Philippines or the US were to be attacked by an external party; (2) the VFA signed in 1998 and taking effect in 1999; (3) the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed by then-US President Barack Obama and his Philippine counterpart  Benigno Aquino allowing the US to access 5 Philippine military bases. Those agreements provide a legal framework for the rotational deployment of American troops and military hardware in the Philippines as well as for annual joint military drills, training exercises, and humanitarian operations, etc. According to official statistics, US forces conduct as many as 300 military activities in-country each year, including warship visits.

Chief among those agreements is the VFA as it provides simplified access procedures to the Philippines for US service members on official business and it provides a series of procedures for how to resolve issues that may arise as a result of US military presence in the Philippines. The VFA is an integral part of the MDT which is central to enhancing combined interoperability of US and Philippine forces. Amidst the Philippines’ military modernisation efforts, the VFA facilitates its access to more military hardware, making the country by far the largest recipient of US military assistance in Southeast Asia. Between 2012 and 2015 alone, the Philippines received about $ 50 million per year in military aid from the U.S., which skyrocketed to $127.1 million per year in the period of 2015-2016. Over the above-mentioned periods, the two countries conducted nearly 30 joint military exercises, 3 out of which had the same magnitude as Balikatan (which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Filipino) – an annual US-Philippine exercise in the East Sea aiming at improving disaster preparedness. The VFA, MDT, and EDCA provide the Philippines with a security umbrella against external provocations and great power competition on the regional chessboard.

The Philippines, one of the US allies in Asia alongside Japan, South Korea and Australia, is central to US efforts to expand its sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific. This helps to explain why Washington has accorded priority to Manila in military terms over the past years. Philippine President Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA in February, 2020 made irrelevant US military presence in-country, the EDCA and the MDT. This drastic policy move, which significantly reduced the Philippines’ military power, took world public opinion by surprise and even provoked internal divisions within the country.

Why a deep rift?

Duterte was the first President to announce a separation from the US since the Philippines’ independence. Since Duterte took office in 2016, he has taken a hardline stance on the US. Alongside the VFA, Duterte threatened to abrogate the EDCA and nullify the MDT by forbidding US troops and military hardware from being present on or passing through Philippine territory and waters. This has plunged the US-Philippines alliance deeper into uncertainty.

Some experts believe that Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy may arise from US criticism of his controversial bloody war on drugs. According to his spokesperson, the US’s decision to deny a visa to senator Ronaldo dela Rosa, Duterte’s close friend and political ally, who led the President’s anti-drugs crackdown as the police chief in the period of 2016-2017, was the last straw. However, the root of the problem apparently lies in great power competition as Southeast Asia has become a hotbed of strategic rivalry. Southeast Asia is crucially important in geo-political, economic and military terms. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, as a regional political and economic entity, plays an important role in the Asia Pacific and serves as a key partner for extra-regional powers. ASEAN states tend to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Therefore, Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA aimed to make the Philippines less dependent on the US. This resulted in a lack of US involvement in many of the Philippines’ activities in economic, political, defense and security terms afterwards. Nevertheless, Manila soon realised that the cons of detaching itself from Washington outweigh the pros.

Healing the rift

While the revocation of the VFA came as a complete surprise, Duterte’s decision to fully restore this key military pact was equally surprising, signalling the Philippines’ pivot back to its longtime ally. According to analysts, its separation from the US left a vacuum which the Philippines could not easily fill in economic, defence and security terms. Some Philippine officials also believe that it is hard for Manila to pivot away from Washington for a number of reasons. First, the 70-year treaty alliance has made the US and the Philippines’ shared interests inextricable. Second, while the Philippines’ major trading partners include Japan, the US, the Netherlands, South Korea, China, and Singapore, Washington is Manila’s largest foreign investor. Third, Filipinos are pro-American. Recent surveys show that 76% of Filipinos want the country to develop close rapport with the US while only 22% of them support relations with other extra-regional powers. There are about 4 million Filipinos in the US who send home billions of USD’s worth of remittances. In 2020 alone, the figure was estimated to reach $ 6 billion. In the event of US imposition of higher taxes on remittances due to bilateral tensions, the Philippine economy would suffer badly. Moreover, as a vast majority of Philippine politicians tend to tilt towards the US, Duterte’s failure to realign Philippine foreign policy is likely to adversely affect his approval rating.

Analysts say that the VFA did put the 70-year-old US-Philippines alliance to the test. Although a tumultuous time in their bilateral relations has elapsed, obstacles remain. Amidst its implementation of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, improved bilateral relations with the Philippines are of great significance to the U.S. as evidenced by visits to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, by top officials in the Biden administration such as Vice President Kamala Harris and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. On the part of the Philippines, Duterte decided to fully restore the VFA after his meeting with US Defence Secretary Austin and ordered bilateral discussions with the U.S. on continued joint military exercises in the future under the VFA. Against such a backdrop, the trajectory of the US-Philippines alliance has drawn international attention.

LAM PHUONG

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