MANILA, Philippines – When the Philippine Marines first showcased their brand new amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) in Subic Bay in September 2019, they were already experts in operating and maneuvering them. A month later, the Marines rode the same AAVs along with American and Japanese troops in war games in Ternate, Cavite, with the historic Corregidor Island on the horizon.
The previous summer, before the Philippines’ AAVs arrived from the factory in South Korea, the Philippine Marines got to train using the US Marines’ AAVs during the yearly Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises in Zambales.
After the Philippine, US, and Japanese AAVs surfaced on the beach in Ternate, successfully completing their simulated mission, the Philippine Marine Corps Deputy Commandant at the time, Brigadier General Ariel Caculitan, attributed his troops’ proficiency to the fact that they had trained in amphibious missions long before they acquired their own assets through exercises with military allies like the US.
With President Rodrigo Duterte’s termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US on Tuesday, February 11, joint military activities with the US like the Balikatan exercises may “be reduced or disappear,” as US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper told reporters just a day before.
From operations to intelligence
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) holds around 300 joint activities with the US military every year – trainings in all modes of military capability covering external defense, counterterrorism, humanitarian aid and disaster response, for the Philippine Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Besides the Balikatan exercises, the two militaries hold many other joint drills throughout every year, such as the Kamandag exercises between their marine corps, the Maritime Training Activity Sama-Sama between their navies, and the Bilateral Air Contingent Exchange between their air forces.
Beyond training, US forces have been instrumental in intelligence sharing and surveillance especially in counterterrorism. Both countries acknowledged the US’ help in retaking the besieged city of Marawi from the Maute terrorists in 2017.
US forces also gave significant humanitarian assistance on the ground in the Visayas in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013.
Every year, US naval warships make friendly port calls in Manila and other parts of the Philippines as a sign of the two countries’ nearly 7-decade treaty alliance. These visits are perceived as a deterrence against the Philippines’ main external security threat: China, with its interest in claiming the West Philippine Sea.
In all these instances, the presence of US military personnel in the Philippines was legally covered by the VFA, which outlines rules for US troops arriving in and leaving the Philippines; the movement of US military vessels and aircraft; and the import and export of equipment and supplies used in these joint activities.
What could happen if and when the VFA is finally terminated?
Joint exercises. At the very least, mounting Balikatan would become a lot more difficult.
The VFA stipulates that US servicemen and women may enter the Philippines without passports or visas as long as their full military credentials are vouched for by the US authority coordinating their activity in the Philippines. This allows for the entry of entire naval ship crews and marine battalions for exercises.
Movement of US warships and aircraft. Then there is the question of the US assets – the warships and aircraft they bring in for exercises and port calls.
The VFA specifies where and how they may land or dock within the Philippines, and waives port fees and other charges, as long as they have the approval of the Philippine government.
Without the VFA that provides general legal coverage for US military activities in the Philippines, the entry and facilitation of US troops and assets would have to be done on a piecemeal, case-to-case basis, security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio told Rappler on Tuesday.
Other military activities. Terminating the VFA would initially result in a suspension of activities between the two militaries because the 1987 Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military troops and facilities unless covered by a treaty approved by the Senate.
The VFA, built on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and ratified by the Senate in 1999, was the agreement that satisfied this constitutional requirement.
Looking beyond the joint exercises, cutting the VFA will have consequences on bilateral ties with the US and even the stability of the AFP, Custodio said.
Other agreements with US
Although the MDT and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will remain in place, they will be much harder to implement without the VFA to facilitate the movement of US troops in the Philippines.
Hinged upon the VFA, the EDCA allows the US military to preposition assets and build facilities in certain Philippine military bases, and warrants the rotational presence of US forces in them. It is seen to boost the Philippines’ defense capability and help in modernizing the AFP.
The MDT, which binds the US to come to the Philippines’ aid in case of an armed attack by a foreign aggressor on its troops and citizens, is kept current by Philippine and US forces maintaining interoperability – or familiarity – with each other.
Because it would make maintaining the same amount and degree of engagement between the two militaries a headache, the US might not find reason to continue with them without the VFA, Custodio said.
This could spill into the overall relations between the Philippines and the US, which could dampen over time.
Although Cooper said the Philippines’ procurement of military assets from the US would continue even without the VFA, the Philippine military might find it difficult to sustain trainings in their use, because they would have to mount their own exercises without the US’ funding and assistance.
The vacuum that US intelligence and surveillance assistance would leave behind could put greater pressure on the AFP in combating internal security threats, especially terrorists. A stressed out military would be more susceptible to unrest, Custodio added. – Rappler.com