COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal

COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal
U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, center, and Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, left, unfurl the Balikatan flag at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, May 2017. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 June 2020

COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal

COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal
  • President Rodrigo Duterte said in February that he was going to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed in 1998
  • Global circumstances and the pandemic prompted a presidential U-turn, according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

MANILA: The COVID-19 outbreak and “heightened superpower tensions” lay behind Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to keep a vital defense pact with the US, his Foreign Affairs secretary said on Wednesday.

Duterte said in February that he was going to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed in 1998. It allows US troops to enter the country and exempts them from passport and visa regulations so that they can participate in military activities within the Philippines.

But global circumstances and the pandemic prompted a presidential U-turn, according to remarks from the Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. 

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense toward enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Locsin told the media. “But in the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in a 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 sent a note to the US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim on Monday, informing him that the Philippines was suspending the revocation of the VFA which was due to take effect in August.

The US welcomed the decision to suspend the termination, saying that the long-standing alliance had benefited both the countries and that it looked forward to the “continued close security and defense cooperation” with the Philippines.

Locsin also said that the government’s action “alarms no country in Asia and the rest of the world” and that “on the contrary, it greatly reassures everyone.”

In separate interviews, Manila’s ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also cited the pandemic and rising tensions in the South China Sea as the reasons for Duterte’s change of heart.

“The assistance of the US will increase the government's capacity to fight the pandemic,” Lorenzana replied when asked in what ways it would help the Philippines.

A report from the US Congressional Research Service in March said that the decision to terminate the VFA raised “uncertainties about the future of US-Philippine military cooperation, an essential part of the U.S. security posture” in Asia.

“The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and the termination of the VFA would not change that status,” the report added. “However, broad aspects of US-Philippine cooperation, including military exercises and US access to Philippine military facilities could be made difficult or impossible without the legal protection of the VFA.”