United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin got what he wanted on his first high-profile visit to the Philippines last week.
President Rodrigo Duterte took back the letter he had sent to the United States, expressing his intention to abrogate the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Before restoring the military-to-military deal, there was uncertainty on both sides on how to proceed with annual exercises and training activities even if the termination was suspended three times.
They couldn’t plan ahead because the president could decide anytime to revoke the agreement, which allows US troop presence in the country only for exercises and training.
Austin’s Filipino counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, who served as the Armed Forces defense attache in Washington and later as the representative of veterans’ affairs, announced the president’s decision in a news conference with Austin at Camp Aguinaldo on Friday.
Many are asking what’s the quid pro quo after Duterte, a known close friend of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, reversed his February 2020 decision to scrap the military agreement.
There were speculations the VFA was exchanged for millions of free vaccines against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), especially now that the Philippines faces a more deadly Delta variant, which could overwhelm the healthcare system.
Others said the US might have promised more modern and brand-new equipment after a US-made C-130 transport plane crashed in Sulu in early July, killing 53 people, including 50 soldiers.
Human rights advocates, on the other hand, wondered why Austin never brought up Duterte’s human rights record during the 75-minute meeting with the maverick leader in Malacañang.
A day before his meeting with Duterte, Austin raised the issue of human rights when he met with top Vietnamese officials in Hanoi.
Washington is the global champion on human rights issues, calling out China’s treatment of the minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang province as well as Hong Kong’s draconian security laws.
But Austin chose not to ruffle the sensitive feathers of the president and instead emphasized the importance of the security alliance in keeping the Indo-Pacific region secure and stable.
Did Austin compromise Washington’s human rights advocacy to promote security in the region?
Austin is the defense secretary not the state department boss. He would certainly put the US national security interests ahead of the lofty principles of human rights and rule of law.
Besides, it would have been pointless to raise the human rights issue in front of Duterte’s face. It would have angered him, endangering the VFA. He would not have achieved anything.
If Austin avoided the issue, one thing is sure. The military alliance is the most important issue now.
In Singapore early in the week, Austin outlined an “integrated deterrence” policy, Washington’s new buzzword to prevent China from changing the status quo in the region as Beijing slowly catches up with America’s military capabilities.
In the words of the former Indo-Pacific commander, Admiral Philip Davidson, the US military has to regain the advantage if it wants to keep its dominant security role in the region in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and continued air and naval harassment of Taiwan.
Based on Austin’s “integrated deterrence” policy, the US and its allies and partners must work closely, using military and non-military tools to counter Beijing’s creeping influence.
China may still have inferior military forces but it used its soft power to control weaker and poorer states in Southeast Asia, like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Even Brunei has fallen into China’s hands as it is heavily dependent on trade and investments, with its energy resources quickly drying up.
The success of Austin’s new security strategy hinges largely on its web of military alliances and partnerships in the region, expanding its annual exercises and training activities and setting more supply depots around the region as the US slowly spreads out its forces around the world.
US forward bases, like in Japan and South Korea, are a thing of the past as these facilities are vulnerable to ballistic missile attacks from hostile countries, like North Korea and potentially China, which is now recognized as a threat and a competitor.
The Philippines fits into Austin’s “integrated deterrence” as the US has a VFA that allows troops to rotate temporarily all year round through a series of exercises and training activities.
US troops hold exercises with the army (Salaknib), air force (Talon Vision) and marines (Kamandag), as well as a large-scale combined and joint exercise called “Balikatan.”
There are more than 300 bilateral training activities, ship and aircraft visits, and subject experts exchanges on a number of issues, like counter terrorism, cyber-security, anti-narcotics, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, non-proliferation, and biological, nuclear, chemical warfare.
The United States Air Force has been granted access to four local bases in Pampanga, Cebu, Palawan, and Cagayan de Oro and in Clark airfield where a new air force drill called Bilateral Air Contingent Exercise-Philippines is held. It also has access to a jungle training base in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija.
At the 5th Fighter Wing base in Floridablanca town in Pampanga, the US has built a depot to preposition its equipment and supplies and there are plans to replicate the depot in Palawan, Cebu, and in northern Mindanao.
The US Congress has appropriated $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2022 under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to acquire new warships and warplanes, set up early warning systems and develop and deploy ballistic missiles as well as anti-ballistic missiles to protect Guam and other Western Pacific military bases.
About $500 million will go to expanding its bilateral and multilateral exercises in the region, including “Balikatan” in the Philippines and “Cobra Gold” in Thailand.
The annual “Balikatan” is slowly being transformed from a bilateral training activity to a multilateral event with the participation of Japanese and Australian forces.
The Philippines has no problem with Australia as it signed a similar status of forces agreement in 2012 but Japan still has to negotiate such a deal.
Duterte’s restoration of the VFA will send a strong message to China that America is back on the saddle as Beijing reneged on its pledge to pour $24 billion investments in the country’s infrastructure program.
But the US was not the only beneficiary in the surprise announcement of the restoration of the VFA.
Politically, the Duterte administration has erased its pro-China image as the May 2022 presidential elections draws close.
Filipinos are rabidly pro-American and Duterte’s constant praises of Xi Jinping and his refusal to challenge China in the West Philippines Sea despite the landmark legal victory at The Hague could somehow affect the chances of his chosen successor.
It was a strategic decision that could hit two birds with one stone — getting back in the graces of the United States and removing a potential political issue in next year’s elections.
Taking back the notice of termination proves one thing — in state-to-state relations, compromises are made to reach mutually beneficial results.
The US got back its VFA and Duterte defused a potential election issue.