President Duterte scraps Visiting Forces Agreement . . .
After weeks of speculation, the Philippines, at the direction of President Rodrigo Duterte, has formally notified the U.S. government that it is terminating the two-decades-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The VFA facilitates travel by U.S. military personnel to the Philippines for training and joint military exercises. The notice, sent yesterday, triggered a 180-day countdown until the agreement expires. Duterte ignored warnings by his top security and foreign affairs officials that it would make the country more vulnerable, declaring: “It's about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defences and not rely on any other country.”
Knee-jerk reaction or strategic move? . . .
Duterte originally claimed that his decision stemmed from the U.S. revocation of a U.S. visa for a Filipino senator and former police chief who led the country’s bloody war on drugs, over allegations of human rights violations. That earlier statement created the impression that the VFA withdrawal is merely a knee-jerk reaction to what Duterte considered a snub and undue American interference in Philippines affairs. But this announcement may be a strategic calculation reflecting the shifting balance of power in the region, which Duterte now believes is in China’s favour. Two years from the end of his term, he may have decided that the time was ripe for the Philippines to play a new strategic role in the region, albeit at the expense of the U.S.
Shifting balance of power . . .
The U.S. military alliance with the Philippines dates back to the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 and was reinforced by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement of 2014. While the termination of the VFA is a major setback for U.S.-Philippines relations, the broader alliance between them remains, for now, intact. The consequences of the Philippines’ actions and the U.S. response are yet to be seen, but they certainly increase uncertainty about the regional balance of power. They are also a significant blow to the U.S.’s regional strategy, particularly in light of the US$2 billion just allocated to support the implementation of its Indo-Pacific strategy in the region.