Philippines put hold on abrogation of military pact with US

Agreement that gives US troops access to South China Sea continues

Balikatan in 2019

Balikatan in 2019 (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Philippines foreign minister Teodoro Lopez Locsin Jr claimed on Monday (June 1) that President Rodrigo Duterte plans to suspend the pending termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the U.S.

In the statement, Locsin stated that the Southeast Asian country looked forward to continuing its strong military partnership with the U.S. as a regional ally and emphasized this action should alarm no country in Asia or the rest of the world. The suspension will continue for six months, which can be extended to another six months, depending on the conditions.

The VFA, which went into effect in 1999, reinforced the obligations of the Philippines and the U.S. in their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, while allowing U.S. forces to enter the country for joint training. Nevertheless, on February 10, 2020, Duterte notified the U.S. that he would abolish the agreement, with the termination to start automatically after 180 days.

Duterte's action was seen as revenge for Washington's decision in 2016 to cancel the U.S. visa of Filipino Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who had been conducting a bloody anti-drug crackdown as the national police chief at that time. With thousands of mostly poor suspects slaughtered, Duterte's war on drugs alarmed human rights watchdogs worldwide, the AP reported.

In response to Duterte's original decision to end the VFA, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called it a move in the wrong direction. The president's announcement had not immediately halted military cooperation between the two counties, either; their annual joint military exercise, Balikatan, was slated to take place last month, but only got canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As China has been aggressively operating in the South China Sea in recent years, the VFA is crucial for the U.S. to swiftly respond to China's expansion. If it were terminated, the U.S. would find it harder to counteract China's increasing threats and defend the safety of its naval forces in the region, the VOA reported.