The Philippines has just announced that it will retain the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. The decision was made public in a joint statement by Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on July 30. Earlier, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had indicated that he would terminate the agreement altogether.
“PRRD’s (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) decision to recall the abrogation of VFA is based on upholding PH strategic core interests, the clear definition of PH-US alliance as one between sovereign equals, and clarity of US position on its obligations and commitments under MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty),” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
The VFA agreement came into effect on May 27, 1999, after being ratified in the Philippines Senate. It allows Washington to retain jurisdiction over American military personnel who are caught committing crimes in the Philippines unless the said crimes are assessed to be of “particular importance” to Manila.
American military personnel are exempted from the Philippines’ visa and passport regulations. Materials that are exported or imported by the American military are exempted from taxes and duties. In addition, U.S. vessels and aircraft are allowed unrestricted movement in Philippine waters.
Last year, the United States had revoked the visa of a former police chief and current Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, a close ally of Duterte. Though Washington did not specify why Rosa’s visa was revoked, it was speculated that it was because he was involved in the Philippine president’s violent war on drugs. Following the move, Manila wrote to Washington on February 11, 2020, indicating that the VFA would be terminated.
In November, the Philippines suspended plans to terminate the agreement due to conflict with China in the South China Sea. In June this year, the termination of VFA was again moved aside after China sent 200 ships to the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in March. Finally, on July 30, Duterte ordered the reinstatement of the VFA agreement with the United States.
Philippines Defense Secretary Lorenzana stated that he was unaware as to what led Duterte to change his mind. In December, Duterte had warned of abrogating the military pact if Washington refused to ship 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. “No vaccine, no stay here,” the president had said at the time.
Meanwhile, U.S. defense chief Austin thanked Duterte for deciding to keep the VFA intact and said that the move would further strengthen the alliance between the two nations.
“Our countries face a range of challenges, from the climate crises to the pandemic and, as we do, a strong, resilient U.S.-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,” Austin stated.
South China Sea
Manila’s move to uphold the VFA comes as Austin reiterated Washington’s stance against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea during a speech in Singapore. The Defense Secretary said that these claims have “no basis in international law” and insisted that such assertions tread “on the sovereignty of states in the region.” He went on to blame China’s intransigence of extending beyond the South China Sea.
“Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water. We have also seen aggression against India, destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang,” Austin said.
The defense chief stated that he is committed to pursuing a “constructive, stable relationship with China.” Though Washington does not “seek confrontation,” it “will not flinch” if American interests are threatened, Austin warned.
The VFA agreement is critical to both Washington and Manila since the presence of American troops acts as a counterbalance to China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea to extend its territorial claims. Beijing has warned the United States to stay away from what it calls an Asian dispute. However, America has sent several Navy warships close to China-claimed islands in its freedom of navigation trips, challenging the communist regime.
Both the Philippines and the United States participate in roughly 300 military activities every year, which has attracted condemnation from Beijing whenever such exercises are held close to the regions in the South China Sea that the Chinese Regime claims to be its own.