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U.S. admiral on VFA repeal: A little disappointing but relationship not lost

MANILA, Philippines – US Navy aircraft carriers usually stop by the Philippines when patrolling the South China Sea but this time, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the rest of its strike group headed straight to Vietnam for a port call.

The Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US is still on. The 180-day interim since President Rodrigo Duterte ordered it scrapped doesn’t end until August. So technically, the flotilla’s 6,000-plus sailors are still legally allowed to enter Philippine territory en masse without each having to apply for a visa. (READ: What will happen to the Philippine military if the VFA is terminated?)

Whether the decision to drop anchor in Vietnam and not in the Philippines had to do with the VFA’s repeal, US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral John Aquilino would not tell.

“It’s a little disappointing that a” – Aquilino pivots mid-sentence – “at this point we value our alliance with the Philippines, we continue to operate together with the Philippine Navy, and we’ll see where this current narrative goes. Thank you.”

Aquilino was speaking from Danang, Vietnam, in a teleconference with an international set of journalists including a few from the Philippines on Friday, March 6.

The last time a US aircraft carrier strike group stopped by the Philippines was in August last year. The nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan and its flotilla moored in Manila Bay for a few days, as Washington and Beijing traded criticisms: Washington accused Beijing of bullying other countries; Beijing resented Washington for impinging upon affairs in the Asia Pacific.

Caught in the middle were smaller states like the Philippines and Vietnam which, like China, lay sovereignty claims over parts of the South China Sea. In 2016, under the Duterte administration, the Philippines won its arbitration case affirming its rights to its portion, the West Philippine Sea. Defying international maritime law, China claims virtually the entire waterway.

Countdown

The US, by sending aircraft carrier strike groups on regular freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) in the South China Sea, asserts that maritime law by simply insisting on innocent passage through the contested sea.

The Philippines benefits from Fonops by friendly naval powers like the US because they incidentally enforce the arbitral ruling that China does not, in fact, own the West Philippine Sea.

In 2018, the US sent 3 aircraft carriers on port calls in Manila: the USS Carl Vinson in February, the USS Theodore Roosevelt in April, and the USS Ronald Reagan in June.

It was a sign then that “the US cares,” as Duterte dangled ties with the US to swing in favor of China. Duterte said the US could not be counted upon as an ally to save the Philippines from its West Philippine Sea troubles with China.

In March 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Manila, said the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty covers the South China Sea – a long-awaited clarification on whether the US would come to the Philippines’ rescue in case of an armed attack on its military or civilians in the West Philippine Sea.

In January 2020, when Duterte again taunted the US that he would scrap the VFA (he had done it before, early into his term), it was over sanctions levied on his political allies over human rights violations. Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, the chief operator of his war on drugs, had just learned that his US visa was revoked.

Like China, Duterte did not like the US involving itself in domestic affairs.

Against the advise of some members of his Cabinet and several senators, Duterte ordered the termination of the VFA on February 11, setting off the 180-day countdown to its lapse.

Although Philippine foreign affairs officials mentioned the possibility of negotiations to the effect of reinstating the military agreement, the conversation has come to include the prospects of drafting a totally new deal at a future date.

The last Balikatan?

As the VFA still holds until August, the US and the Philippines are set to push through with this year’s iteration of the Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises in May.

The Balikatan is the largest of some 300 yearly joint exercises and trainings between Filipino and American forces made possible by the VFA, and without it, those joint activities will be whittled down to a bare minimum, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

This year’s Balikatan will involve more than 6,000 American and over 4,000 Filipino troops, an escalation from previous years, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said.

But with the looming exit of American troops from the Philippines, is the US looking to other strategic partners like Vietnam from which to anchor operations in Southeast Asia? Has the Philippines lost its spot in the US’ strategic cover in the Indo-Pacific?

“I’d like to first highlight that from the United States Navy position, we don’t believe the relationship has been lost. We work with all of the nations throughout the region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Aquilino said.

“All of those likeminded nations with common values share some very similar bonds – those of sovereignty, freedom to govern, adherence to international rules-based laws that exist, and as all nations work through their political systems, that the navies will continue to work together to adhere to those common goals,” the admiral added.

The VFA “gave flesh” and operationalized the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), said Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. On its own, the MDT is a mere “piece of paper.”

Although the two countries’ treaty alliance continues in black-and-white, the crucial matter would be whether the two forces can continue operating together on the ground and out at sea. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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