Rodrigo Duterte has a symbiotic relationship with the military establishment. He has been showering them with non-military benefits, paying attention to their needs from equipment and personal welfare, to vaccines for coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
He has placed generals straight from retirement to civilian positions, even if they did not have the expertise and experience running an agency, like social welfare, healthcare, environment, and telecommunications.
Duterte’s relationship with the military began more than a year after he assumed office in 2016. Initially, he boasted in speeches that he was the country’s first elected socialist leader. He appointed left-wing personalities to his Cabinet and opened peace negotiations with Maoist-led rebels.
He even said the New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas were his friends. In fact, when Leoncio Pitao, alias Commander Parago, was cornered by troops led by then Maj. Gen. Eduardo Año in the hinterlands of Davao, he begged the military to stop the offensive and allow the guerrilla leader to escape.
Año did not listen to a small city mayor. Parago was killed in an encounter with Army commandos.
Duterte also flirted with the Chinese and criticized the Americans as an unreliable ally after the United States did nothing to help the Philippines in the three-month-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal. Neither did it lift a finger to stop China’s island-building in the Spratlys.
Lately, Duterte said Washington withheld delivery of an unspecified number of precision-guided missiles which the local military could use to defeat Islamist militants and Communist guerrillas.
On the surface, Duterte’s rants were valid and legitimate. His sentiments were shared by senior generals who had begun to doubt the commitment of the United States to the 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
The Philippines is the oldest and only military ally of the United States in Southeast Asia. For the longest time, Manila has relied on the security umbrella provided by Washington, particularly during the Cold War. This allowed the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to concentrate on internal security threats. But he paid little attention to external defense.
Thus, when the Philippine Senate voted to kick out the US bases in September 1991, the government suddenly realized how naked the country was in terms of external defense capabilities when the last American sailor left Subic naval base.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines had World War II-vintage naval vessels and Vietnam War-era aircraft. It has radars with very limited range and no missiles. And troops were only experienced in fighting domestic threats.
It woke up one February morning to find a Chinese makeshift shelter on Mischief Reef in 1995, the first sign of Chinese intrusion into the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China stepped up its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea through the years, building seven artificial islands in the Spratlys and converting them into garrisons with airstrips and naval bases.
The Philippines was forced to invite back the Americans in 1998 through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which is actually a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) that the US had with other countries hosting its troops, like Japan, South Korea and Germany.
Both the defense and foreign affairs departments have emphasized the importance of US military presence in the region, in general, and in the Philippines, in particular, as a stabilizing factor and as a counterbalance to a rising China.
Notwithstanding Duterte’s extreme loyalty to China, whom he has lavishly praised at every occasion, he could not go against the military’s wish to remain close to the United States.
Talking to military aviators after inspecting newly acquired Black Hawk helicopters from Poland, Duterte said “the exigency of the moment requires their presence here,” an indication that he would agree with the defense and foreign secretaries to keep the VFA, which allows the rotating presence of US forces in the country.
A day before he spoke, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana voiced the defense and military establishments wish to keep the VFA.
Duterte had sent a notice of termination after Washington blacklisted a key political ally for involvement in human rights violations. But he has suspended VFA’s termination twice. It will end in August unless the president suspends the termination for the third time.
Duterte loves his soldiers and feels safe with the generals around him so he would likely suspend anew the termination of the VFA, but he has to balance his rhetoric by appearing neutral. He needs to avoid antagonizing China.
Lorenzana also had a similar stand, probably to appease his boss, but everyone knew where his heart was. In the beginning, he was the only Cabinet official talking sense when Duterte started disparaging the Americans. But he has increasingly moved to kowtow to the boss.
At Clark Air Field, Duterte appeared to go along with the military but asked the Americans to pay if they really wanted to keep the VFA.
“I’d like to put [you] on notice if there is an American agent here, from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement done, you have to pay.”
Washington was paying $200 million a year for the use of two huge military bases in Subic and Clark until 1992. But Duterte must be reminded that it was the Philippines that invited back the United States.
Besides, the US did not ask for a basing agreement, only access to local military bases. In Japan and South Korea, the US does not pay a single dollar for its military presence.
It’s burden-sharing for providing deterrence from external aggression. It goes beyond that as Japan joins the United States in sending warships to patrol the South China Sea and East China Sea to ensure a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.
Duterte also spoke about burden-sharing in his impromptu speech at Clark: “It is a shared responsibility but your share of responsibility does not come free.”
The Americans have been providing security and economic assistance to the Philippines as a reliable ally. In fact, the Philippines gets the lion share of the annual military aid the US provides in the entire Indo-Pacific region, next only to the Middle East — Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
The US does not require the Philippines to send its warships to patrol in the South China Sea and other security-related activities in the region because it has no naval and air power.
The Philippines is in fact the weakest link to the chain of defense alliances the US has from North Asia down to Australia. And the chain appeared to have been broken when Duterte allowed China’s influence to grow in the country.
It is wrong for Duterte to demand payment from the Americans to keep the VFA. Without him asking for assistance, the US had sent support during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, before Donald Trump departed from the White House, his administration gave more than $60 million in equipment, including precision-guided bombs, which Duterte was ranting about.
In sharp contrast, China has not lived up to its pledge to pour $24 billion in investments and development assistance since 2016. In fact, China profited from the Philippines when Duterte bought billions of pesos worth of testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPEs) during the pandemic. He favored Chinese vaccines more than Western brands. He also relied on the private sector and from international agencies to supply Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca doses.
He has made private companies promise to turn over 50 percent of the vaccines they would buy from Western pharmaceutical companies.
Perhaps, he was thinking he could also do the same to the United States by asking Washington to pay in exchange for the VFA.
The Philippines and the United States share the same democratic values. The two have been allies for decades, since the Second World War.
A reliable ally does not extort and does not flirt with the ally’s rival and will remain loyal to the alliance no matter what.