Duterte halted VFA termination due to South China Sea tensions

Despite earlier asserting he wanted the military deal scrapped, President Rodrigo Duterte decided to suspend his earlier decision to terminate the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States due to rising tensions in the South China Sea during the pandemic. 

According to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, who along with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza earlier pushed for a review of the deal instead of terminating it, neither he nor Lorenzana had been involved in Duterte's change of mind. 

“Secretary Lorenzana and I were not (driving forces). I think in this situation where he saw that the tensions in the South China Sea were getting in the way of a united response to the COVID (pandemic)… having a rise in military tensions in the South China Sea was not helping anybody,” Locsin said in an interview with ABS-CBN news on Monday, June 22. 

“He just called us and said ‘That’s it, suspend it,’” Locsin added. (READ: VFA termination suspended due to pandemic, geopolitics – Locsin)

Recent months have seen China’s aggression in the South China Sea continue to take place despite the coronavirus pandemic, with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia objecting to Beijing’s encroachments in its waters.

Experts believe the VFA deters Chinese agression in the South China Sea.

Duterte had earlier threatened to terminate the VFA on January 23, after the US canceled the visa of Senator Ronald dela Rosa. Dela Rosa is Duterte's first Philippine National Police chief, known as the architect behind the government's bloody anti-drug campaign.

What happened to the VFA: Last June 2, the Philippines earlier announced it was pressing pause on its decision to withdraw from the VFA, which would have expired in August, or 180 days after the Philippines first informed the US of it was walking away from the deal. 

The Philippines’ latest move extends the VFA for 6 more months, and is renewable for another 6 months after. 

Still, Locsin refused to say the suspension of the VFA termination could be considered as sign the military pact would remain in place.

For the Department of Foreign Affairs chief, the notice sent to the United States embassy “took exactly that form because any other form would have required a new agreement.”  

Instead, the next 6 months to one year is supposed to provide a period to thresh out issues up for review in the deal, Locsin said. The include “mainly jurisdictional” issues, in the case of offenses by American military and the deployment of counter-terrorism forces in Mindanao. 

“My own feeling is if we come up with any arrangement, my own leaning is toward a series of diplomatic notes as needed…. Right now all sides are just caught up in the COVID (coronavirus pandemic.),” Locsin said. 

Sticking to the status quo: Locsin likewise denied there was any relation between the recent suspension to the VFA termination and the presence of 3 US aircraft carriers positioned just outside the West Philippine Sea in the South China Sea. 

For Locsin, the move is part of the US’ right to freedom of navigation. 

“The United States has already sent their forces to Southeast Asia as they kept saying they would do to assert by actual deployment freedom of navigation. So now it’s there,” he said.  

“We are now back in the situation before the termination of the VFA and in that situation as you said, there seemed to be kind of an accommodation between the two great powers – no escalation in any degree,” he added. 

Moving forward, Locsin said he planned to work on the next steps for the Philippines after the scheduled termination of the VFA and that among the options being considered was the Philippines’ Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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