Philippines keeps Visiting Forces Agreement with US

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to the new terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, aborting a plan to terminate the critical defense pact.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made the announcement on Friday morning, July 30, saying Duterte made the decision after meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is in the Philippines for a visit from July 29 to 30. Austin is the first member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet to visit the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia.

“The President decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA. So the VFA is in full force again. There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track,” Lorenzana told reports in a press briefing at Camp Aguinaldo.

Duterte’s decision ends over a year of uncertainty over the fate of the deal which provides the legal framework for the presence of US troops in the Philippines for war games and other joint activities.

The unpredictable Philippine leader had threatened to terminate the VFA in January 2020, a threat backed up by a formal notice of termination a month later.

The move was borne out of Duterte’s outrage over the US cancellation of the visa of his ally, Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, who, as his then-top cop, had implemented his bloody anti-drugs campaign in the early years of his presidency.

It was also Duterte’s clapback to the US Senate's adoption of a resolution that seeks Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Philippine officials involved in extrajudicial killings and the detention of his staunch critic, Senator Leila de Lima.

Yet despite his VFA threat, Duterte thrice suspended the process of terminating the deal – first in June 2020, again in November 2020, after Joseph Bidenvictory as US president, and a third time in June 2021, to make way for further negotiations

Duterte's Cabinet members conceded that Duterte's decision to freeze the termination process was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising tensions in the South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part.

"We thank the President  for his decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement," Austin said.

"A. strong, resilient US-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together," he added.

Side agreement

On Friday, Lorenzana said he was not privy to the details behind Duterte's latest decision. "I don't really know what's behind the President's decision," he said.

"One thing is clear. The Department of Foreign Affairs and the (Philippine) ambassador to the United States (Jose Manuel Romualdez) have been actually working for this to happen. Maybe the President was just convinced that we will continue with the VFA and he gave his decision last night," Lorenzana added.

Lorenzana said no changes had been made to the original text of the military deal, but that a side agreement was being eyed to address contentious provisions such as those on the custody of troops.

“I think that's one of the side agreements that are being worked out by both sides and it will not affect the original document, but it will just be an adjunct or an additional agreement between the two countries,” Lorenzana said.

Concern over the issue had been renewed in 2020 after Duterte pardoned US marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was convicted in December 2015 for the gruesome murder of Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude.

A senior Philippine government official earlier told Rappler the side agreement would involve guidelines on “when and how” Philippine authorities will exercise criminal jurisdiction and custody over erring US military personnel.

“Having them will ensure predictability, transparency and fairness in the process,” said the senior official who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

In a separate statement, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte’s decision to recall the VFA’s termination was “based on upholding Philippine strategic core interests, the clear definition of Philippine-US alliance as one between sovereign equals, and clarity of US position on its obligations and commitments under MDT.”

Duterte's conditions

Philippine and US officials had kicked off a series of meetings in February on changing terms of the agreement.

That same month, Duterte said the US “must pay” in order to keep the VFA. This came at the heels of an earlier ultimatum that the Western power must give the Philippines COVID-19 vaccines if it wanted American soldiers in the country.

Yet Filipino diplomats and defense officials are practically unanimous in backing the VFA, saying the country needs it to improve its security posture.

Romualdez said in early June that concluded negotiations had “improved” the key deal between the two countries.

Philippine and US officials had also long recognized that the VFA is necessary for the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which sees both countries commit to defend one another in case of an attack. The two countries will mark the 70th year of the MDT on August 30.

The Philippines counts on its military alliance with the US to ward off more aggression from China, especially given the Asian giant’s attempts to claim Philippine waters. The deal is also viewed as a deterrent to China's expansionist claims as the Philippine military remains one of the weakest in the region.

There were fears that Duterte would scrap the VFA as part of a strategy to warm up to China, a follow-through of his 2016 declaration of "separation" from the US.

Duterte's decision to keep the VFA also comes after Biden announced that the Philippines would be among the first countries to benefit from the US surplus of COVID-19 vaccines. In July, it received some 3.2 million Johnson & Johnson doses.

Earlier, US State Secretary Antony Blinken and Austin reassured the Philippines that the MDT, which encompasses the VFA, would cover the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. Past US officials have given the same assurance.

This means the US, under Biden, commits to defend Filipinos should there be an attack in the West Philippine Sea. – with reports from Jairo Bolledo/Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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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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