After much speculation, the Philippines has chosen to keep in place the agreement that defines the legal status of U.S. military forces in the country. The decision to maintain the core element of the bilateral alliance is a welcome development in checking China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
Manila agreed to maintain the Visiting Forces Agreement when U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited the Philippines last week — a major security achievement for Austin on what was his first visit to Southeast Asia as a member of U.S. President Joe Biden’s cabinet.
The VFA provides the basis for U.S. forces to make port calls and conduct joint exercises with their Philippine counterparts. Other military pacts, such as the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, are meaningful only if the VFA is in place.
The fate of the VFA had been in doubt. The U.S. is thought to have angered Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when it refused to issue an entry visa to a former police chief and close associate of the president because of human rights violations. In February last year Duterte told the U.S. that he would terminate the VFA over the issue, but he held off on following through with his threat, citing the spread of the new coronavirus as the reason.
However, the decision is also thought to have been influenced by a series of incidents after Duterte’s announcement in February last year, such as a Chinese government vessel aiming its laser gun at a Philippine Navy ship and Beijing’s unilateral creation of administrative zones in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
The Philippines is one of the five U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand. The U.S.-Philippines alliance would become an empty shell if the VFA were ended, significantly impacting the balance of power in Asia.
China has adeptly leveraged the “power vacuum” created by the breakdown in the U.S.-Philippines alliance to accelerate its maritime expansion.
Beijing’s occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 came three years after U.S. forces totally left the Philippines. After that experience, Manila and Washington signed the VFA in 1998, but the pact failed to stop China from occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The administration of then-President Barack Obama responded too slowly to China’s action in the eyes of the Philippines. Frustration over that is said to be another factor that led to Duterte’s announcement to scrap the VFA.
The Biden administration has emphasized cooperation with U.S. allies in countering China. It should use Manila’s decision to keep the VFA in place as a chance to urgently reexamine its security cooperation with the Philippines.