MANILA: A key pact allowing the presence of US forces in the Philippines for military drills and joint exercises has been restored to “full force,” American and Filipino defense chiefs revealed on Friday.
The announcement followed President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to backtrack on plans to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Signed in 1998, the VFA provides rules for the entry of US troops, ships, and aircraft into the Philippines for military exercises. Under the terms of the deal, it can be terminated through written notice by either party, taking effect within 180 days.
Duterte threatened to tear up the accord in February last year after the US Department of State canceled a visa for one of his political allies and he has suspended the termination letter on several occasions since then.
The Filipino president’s decision to keep the agreement followed his meeting on Thursday with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who was in Manila on a two-day visit during his first Southeast Asia tour to fortify regional alliances.
During a joint press conference with Austin at Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said: “The VFA is in full force again. There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track. The president (Duterte) decided to recall or retract the termination letter.”
Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president decided to continue with the VFA for the sake of his country’s strategic interests under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin handed Austin a letter recalling the termination of the treaty. “As such, upon the instructions of President Duterte, today I handed over to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin the diplomatic note recalling the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he said, adding that the Americans had addressed issues over the bilateral security relationship “with good faith.”
The VFA, and all other bilateral military agreements and activities between the US and the Philippines are supplemental to the 1951 MDT, which serves as the foundation for the security relationship between the two countries and requires each to come to the other’s aid if attacked by a third party.
A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in March last year noted that, “while the termination of the VFA would not abrogate the MDT, it would complicate the US defense department’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the treaty.”
During the press conference, Austin said: “On behalf of the US, let me thank President Duterte for his decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement. A strong, resilient US-Philippines alliance will remain vital to the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.”
Austin was the first member of US President Joe Biden’s Cabinet to visit the Philippines, arriving in the country on Thursday wearing a face mask and full-face shield. Although ridiculed by some politicians in America, where coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions have been lifted, Austin’s precautions were welcomed in the Philippines, a nation still struggling to deal with the pandemic and recently forced to reimpose strict new rules to help stop the spread of the virus.
“It clearly shows that Secretary Austin is very much aware of and is abiding by stringent Philippine health protocols,” Department of National Defense spokesman, Arsenio Andolong, told Arab News.