TIMELINE: Duterte's threats to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement

After lashing out at the United States for weeks, President Rodrigo Duterte moved to formally end the Philippines' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, taking his dislike for the country's old ally a notch further. 

Upon Duterte's orders, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr signed on Tuesday, February 11, the Duterte government's notice that it was terminating the VFA, triggering a 180-day or 6-month countdown until the agreement would formally end. 

Some analysts say Duterte's latest move could serve to actualize his pivot to China, which continued its expansionist clams in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea. 

No less than Locsin, along with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, warned of the far-reaching consequences abrogating the VFA would have not only on the country's defense, but also its relations with other US-allied countries. 

How did we get here? 

January 23, 2020

Duterte renews threats to terminate the VFA, prompted by his anger over the US government's decision to cancel the visa of Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa. Dela Rosa is Duterte's first Philippine National Police chief known as the architect behind the government's bloody anti-drug campaign.

"I'm warning you, this is the first time: 'pag hindi ninyo ginawa ang correction diyan, I will terminate the basis of Visiting Forces Agreement. Tapusin ko'ng putang inang 'yan," Duterte says in a curse-laden speech before former rebels in Leyte. 

(I'm giving you this first warning: if you don't correct [what you've done], I will terminate the basis of the Visiting Forces Agreement. I'll end that son of a bitch.)

NEW VISA. Senator Ronald 'Bato' dela Rosa speaks to media on the cancellation of his US visa on January 22, 2020

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

This is not the first time Duterte threatened to terminate the VFA. Earlier in 2016, Duterte warned  he would scrap the VFA after the US did not renew an aid package for the Philippines. 

January 24, 2020

Locsin hails Duterte's threats against the US as a "good move." The DFA chief says doing so tests whether or not the US is "serious" about its military alliance with the Philippines. 

Locsin likewise puts Duterte's words into motion as he announces he will start the "process" of terminating the VFA.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra follows suit, saying the Department of Justice (DOJ) was studying the "proper procedure" to terminate the VFA. 

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declines to take a position on the matter, saying only that he "understood" why Duterte was angered by the cancelation of Dela Rosa's visa.  

For Lorenzana, cancelling Dela's Rosa's visa can be seen as a "direct affront" to Duterte's controversial anti-illegal drug campaign. With Duterte's threats, the defense chief says "the ball is in the US' hands." 

"He ordered Bato, then the newly installed Chief PNP [Philippine National Police], to launch the drug war and enjoined the entire PNP to do their duties and pledged to would back them up. That he would take responsibility for their official actions. That he would go to prison for them. He is just being true to his promise," Lorenza says. 

"Let’s see how they react to PRRD’s [President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's] statement," he adds.  

At the Senate, lawmakers claim there is no need for Senate concurrence to terminate the VFA. While Senate rarification was needed to make the VFA valid (which the Senate did during the Erap presidency), senators say it can now be terminated without concurrence of the Senate.

January 25, 2020

Although quick to the draw to terminate the VFA, Guevarra now says a separate study is needed to explore its effects on other defense agreements with the US. These include the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Guevarra says the DOJ will also submit to Duterte its legal memorandum on the proper procedures to terminate the VFA. The justice secretary says the memorandum will "deal with the procedure for termination only, not the wisdom of the executive action." 

DEFENSE PARTNERS. US Ambassador Sung Kim and DND Undersecretary Cardozo Luna pose for a photo during the 2019 Balikatan exercises.

Rappler file photo

January 27, 2020

The Duterte government takes a step back and says it is preparing a report on the potential impact of such were the Philippines to move forward with the decision. 

Guevarra says Malacañang ordered the "preliminary impact assessment on the possible termination of the VFA," including its effects on other PH-US defense agreements.  

Meanwhile, former foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario urges Duterte to accept US President Donald Trump's invitation to attend its special summit with Southeast Asian leaders, if only to conduct talks on the Philippines' bilateral relations with the United States.

Del Rosario says that while the VFA is "imperfect," it is "essential" for the two countries' decades-old defense alliance. He warns that that terminating the VFA would actualize the Philippines' pivot to China, "against the strong and vehement objections of our people."

Malacañang rejects Del Rosario's advice. According to Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, "The President knows what he is doing."

At a press conference with reporters, Panelo downplays the possibility of the US terminating other military treaties with the Philippines following the Duterte government's efforts to start the process of terminating the VFA. 

He says the Duterte administration was not concerned with such a fallout, seeing as it was "in the realm of speculation" and that Duterte's decision to do so was "studied response." 

January 29, 2020

Lawmakers at the House of Representatives criticize Duterte’s threat to terminate the VFA, calling it a “knee-jerk” reaction that endangered national security. They appeal to DFA officials to provide sound recommendations to Duterte.

Senators announce they will review the VFA, MDT, and EDCA. Senate foreign relations committee chairman Senator Aquilino Pimentel III says it is high time to review the VFA, given that the Senate has legislative oversight on the agreement.

At an ambush interview on the sidelines of the Department of Social Welfare and Development's founding anniversary, Duterte announces he is barring Cabinet members from traveling to the US. 

"I will not allow any Cabinet member to go there at this time. No Cabinet member should be allowed to go to the United States...indefinitely," Duerte says. 

 With no Cabinet-level official making trips to the US, Duterte says he will "limit" the Philippines' interaction in "whatever aspect of international relations would be discussed or subject to talks." 

"Parang boycott (It's like a boycott)," Duterte says.

The President also reiterates he is bent on terminating the VFA. He says his decision to do so was not solely based on Dela Rosa's canceled visa, but was also anchored on 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 Senator Leila de Lima.

February 3, 2020

US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila during World War II. In his remarks, the ambassador does not explicitly mention the VFA. 

Kim only emphasizes the benefits of US troops’ presence and cooperation in the Philippines, sanctioned by the agreement. 

“The alliance remains as important today as it was 75 years ago,” Kim says. 

February 6, 2020

The Senate holds a hearing on the VFA, as well as the country's other defense agreements with the US. 

Before a Senate panel, Locsin warns against the far-reaching consequences and risks the Philippines may face were it to abrogate its VFA with the US. He pushes for a review of the agreement, rather than its outright revocation.   

In a 20-minute speech before senators, the DFA chief highlights how the VFA has served as a deterrent to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea; facilitated assistance in huge disasters; helped the Philippine military modernize and combat terror; and promoted economic ties not only with the US but its allies. 

Locsin discloses Duterte's renewed threats to scrap the two countries' long-standing military pact were made without consulting him or Lorenzana.  

He adds that while it is the President's prerogative to end it, "the continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any benefits were it to be terminated." 

February 7, 2020

Defying warnings issued by his top security and foreign affairs officials, Duterte remains set on scrapping the VFA. 

Panelo says Duterte "is instructing" Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to inform Locsin Jr of his order. 

February 8, 2020

Lorenzana refutes news Dutere has ordered Locsin to send the US notice the Philippines was terminating the VFA as “fake news.” 

Asked whether or not Locsin has been issued an official order Lorenzana tells reporters, “Yes, according to Sec Medialdea! None. Nada. Zilch. Awan. Wala! Anggapo.” 

ALLIES. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana meets US State Secretary Mike Pompeo on September 29, 2018.

Photo from US embassy in Manila

February 10, 2020

Senators adopt a resolution urging Duterte to reconsider his decision to scrap the VFA. Withdrawing from the VFA, they say, must be “reviewed seriously” to make sure it would not affect the security and economy of the Philippines and other countries in the Asia Pacific. 

Only Dela Rosa abstains from voting on the resolution.

Meanwhile, speaking before local chief executives, Duterte deviates from his prepared remarks on the 2019 novel coronavirus as he doubles down on threats to terminate the VFA. 

Duterte says US President Donald Trump, along with other top officials, were trying to prevent the abrogation of the VFA, though he was bent on carrying out.

"I'll make it public because public official ako: Si Trump pati 'yung others are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. Sabi ko, ayaw ko. One [reason] is that, napakabastos na 'yung Amerikano. Talagang sobrang bastos," Duterte said in a speech before local chief executives.

(I'll make it public since I'm a public official: Trump and the others are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. I said I don't want to. One reason is that the Americans are very rude. They are extremely rude.) 

February 11, 2020

The Philippines sends the US formal notice it is terminating the VFA. 

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo says in a news briefing that Locsin signed the Philippines’ notice of termination and sent it to the US government.  

"The Executive Secretary sent the message to Secretary Teddyboy Locsin and the latter signed the notice of termination as sent to the US government today," Panelo said.

In response to the Philippines’ moves, the US government says abrogating the agreement will have "significant implications" on relations between the two countries.  

“This is a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippines alliance.  We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests,” the US said. 

“Our two countries enjoy a warm relationship, deeply rooted in history.  We remain committed to the friendship between our two peoples,” it added.

With the Philippines' formal notice signed, termination will take place 180 days or 6 months after the US received written notification.

June 2, 2020

The Philippines decides to withdraw an earlier notice that it was terminating its VFA with the US in 2020, owing to "political and other developments in the region."

"The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the President's instruction," Locsin tweets. 

The US welcomes the Philippines decision, adding it looks forward to "continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines."

June 3, 2020

At a press conference at the DFA headquarters, Locsin says the Duterte government’s decision to not pursue the termination of the VFA was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic and heightened tensions in the region.

“In the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, the time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world,” Locsin says. 

He adds, “Let me assure you that this action alarms no countries in Asia and the rest of the world. On the contrary it greatly reassures everyone.” 

June 22, 2020

Locsin further explains the Philippines’ decision to suspend the VFA’s termination. 

According to Locsin, Duterte changed his mind about terminating the military deal now due to rising tensions in the South China Sea during the pandemic. He adds neither he, nor Lorenzana, were “driving forces” behind Duterte’s decision. 

“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 says in an interview with ABS-CBN. 

November 11, 2020

Days after the victory of US President-elect Joe Biden, the Philippines announces it will extend the suspension of the VFA’s termination for another 6 months. This means that the termination, should it happen, will take effect only on August 9, 2021. 

“Long live Philippine-US friendship and alliance,” Locsin says in a statement addressed to White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

During the announcement on the fresh extension, Locsin again cites the security provided by the military deal in the South China Sea. 

He says a second extension will allow officials in Manila and Washington “to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our  mutual defense.”

November 23, 2020

O’Brien visits Manila for an official visit and asks the Duterte government to keep the VFA for longer

“We’d obviously like to see that longer and that’s something I spoke with Secretary Locsin about, is if we extend it a further period of time so we can have some negotiations to address the important concerns on both sides of that treaty and that agreement and not be up against an artificial deadline,” O’Brien says. 

O’Brien also reiterates Washington’s pledge to defend the Philippines in case of an armed attack in the West Philippine Sea. 

December 26, 2020

Duterte threatens to scrap the VFA once more by dangling the fate of the military deal over the issue of COVID-19 vaccines from the US. 

"Kung hindi sila maka-deliver ng maski (If they fail to deliver at least) a minimum of 20 million vaccines, they better get out, no vaccine, no stay here," Duterte says in a speech which receives soft applause from the room full of Cabinet secretaries.

Duterte adds: “Yung Visiting Forces Agreement, matatapos na. Ngayon, kapag hindi ako pumayag, aalis talaga sila." (The Visiting Forces Agreement is about to end. So if I don't allow it, they would really have to go.) – 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.