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Duterte Pivots Away from the U.S. in South China Sea

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U.S. Marine Cpl. Iuann Lopez signals a Philippine Marine Corps amphibious vehicle during a joint exercise, October 2019

By The Strategist 02-21-2020 09:54:00

On February 11, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte gave 180 days’ notice of the termination of the 20-plus-year-old US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The agreement provides the legal framework for US forces to be stationed on rotation in the Philippines. Duterte’s termination of the VFA, which significantly weakens the US–Philippines alliance, will be his lasting legacy.

The cancellation of the VFA is the most significant downgrading of the US–Philippines alliance since the US military was asked to vacate the Subic Bay naval base in the early 1990s.

Duterte’s move, which has no support from his foreign and defense ministers, appeared to be a direct response to the US’s revocation of a visa for former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, who was the architect of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’.

Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has been advocating for a more independent foreign policy, which means ‘less America, more China’. A couple of weeks after he took office, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of Manila in the South China Sea dispute, but he opted to not pursue the matter, effectively nullifying the ruling. His criticism of the US was clear from early on,  when he insulted President Barack Obama for condemning the extra-judicial killings in the war on drugs, and his prejudice against America didn’t abate after Donald Trump took over.

The abrogation of the VFA will complicate the US military’s access to and presence in the region. Since Washington is now in open competition with China, and Southeast Asia is in the centre of what the Pentagon calls the primary theatre of the Indo-Pacific region, this is certainly a blow. Moreover, because of the Philippines’ strategic value, it may also affect American logistics in potential crises in the South China Sea, Taiwan and the East China Sea. On the other hand, it appears to be in line with Trump’s desire for allies to take care of their own security. His immediate reaction to Duterte’s decision was to tell reporters, ‘I don’t really mind if they would like to do that. It will save a lot of money.’

The VFA termination is a turning point in the military history of a country that has outsourced its defense since World War II. Without the VFA, the 1951 US–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement could become empty shells. It’s no wonder his ministers disapprove.

The VFA termination will damage the Philippines on multiple levels. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a more self-reliant defense policy, but Duterte is simply putting all his eggs into China’s basket. In the light of Beijing’s aggressive posture, its military activities around the facilities it has built in the South China Sea, and its frequent incursions into other claimants’ exclusive economic zones, cancelling the VFA will leave the Philippines vulnerable and exposed. It will also make Brunei, Malaysia and especially Vietnam—none of which have similar defense arrangements with the US—more nervous. So, on the strategic level, the termination of the VFA will seriously weaken the US’s deterrence capacity in the region.

Despite Duterte’s controversial personality and policies, he remains massively popular in his country, And while he may be unconventional in the way he handles relations with the US, he is tapping into a vein of anti-American sentiment among Filipinos. Many remember the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident, when the Obama administration said that the US wouldn’t ‘go to war over some rocks’.

Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has made five visits to Beijing—more than any of his predecessors. He’s been a strong proponent of engaging with China and benefiting economically from those ties. Abrogating the VFA is a manifestation of his acceptance of and submission to Beijing’s dominance in the region.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing hailed the announcement, which gave it another opportunity to underscore the narrative  that the US is no longer welcome in Southeast Asia. It has been pushing to block any external actors’ involvement in the South China Sea disputes and to limit the issue only to the claimant states.

Armed Forces of the Philippines’ leaders haven’t welcomed the termination. It will interfere with military training, including special forces training, slow down humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, and complicate the future of US counterterrorism efforts, such as stabilising the situation after Islamic State operations in Marawi.

Australia is the only other country to have a VFA (signed in 2007 and ratified in 2012) with the Philippines. Duterte’s announcement doesn’t affect that deal, but a reduced US presence will weaken deterrence against terrorist and insurgent groups, leaving Australia and other regional neighbours less secure.

The questions that now need to be answered are:

  • What will happen after the notice period of 180 days is over?
  • What will the working arrangements be for US troops in Mindanao?
  • Will Washington and Manila continue to cooperate on intelligence gathering?

The biggest casualty in the VFA termination is trust, which is the absolutely fundamental requirement in any alliance. The US government may hope to work out a new arrangement with Duterte, but trust is something that takes a long time to build and a rash decision to ruin.

Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at ASPI. This article appears courtesy of ASPI's The Strategist, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.