The Philippines has taken the first step to ending more than 70 years of strategic alliance with the United States, a former colonial master and its oldest security partner in the region.

The abrogation of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) is the start of the process of distancing the Philippines from the world’s No. 1 superpower, a move that could eventually pull the country closer to China, a rising global power.

While some lawmakers believed there was a need for the Senate to vote to terminate the treaty signed in February 1998 under the administration of President Fidel Ramos and became effective during the administration of President Joseph Estrada after the Senate ratified the agreement in 1999, the administration insisted President Rodrigo Duterte could unilaterally revoke the legal agreement.

Under Article IX of the agreement, any party can walk away from the treaty by sending a letter notifying the other party that it wants out of the agreement. After 180 days, the pact is dissolved.

Thus, we could see the end of the VFA later this year. The joint and combined military exercises “Balikatan” in April could be the last. The bilateral marine exercises “Kamandag” later this year could also be the final large-scale military-to-military activity.

However, small unit cross-training and table top exercises could still continue if the Duterte government wants the American troops to continue holding 300 other bilateral military activities.

The Department of Foreign Affairs can grant diplomatic status to individual US servicemen through administrative and technical (A&T) status. The Philippines did this in the past when the “Balikatan” exercises continued for a few years after the departure of the US forces from its two large overseas military bases in Subic and Clark in November 1992.

The VFA is actually a status of forces agreement (SOFA) which the US had when the military bases agreement (MBA) was still in force.

The A&T status allowed more than 5,000 American troops to continue large-scale exercises until the Philippines stopped the scheme and decided to negotiate for a new SOFA, which was renamed VFA.

Manila found the A&T arrangement too onerous because of the large number of US servicemen given temporary diplomatic status every time they came to the country for training and exercises.

The Philippines can finally cut the umbilical cord with the United States when it abrogates all the remaining security arrangements, like the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the 2002 Mutual Logistics and Service Agreement (MLSA) and the Cold War-era Military Assistance Agreement (MAA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

How ready is the Philippines in protecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty without the alliance with the United States? Can the Philippines stand on its own given its limited defense capabilities? Can it afford to throw away the security umbrella the alliance with US has effectively provided the country for decades?

Looking back at the security relationship between the two allies, there are many advantages and disadvantages. Some would argue the Philippines did not benefit much from the arrangement.

For one, the US has long neglected its old ally in the region, making the Philippines too dependent on the Americans for its external defense, particularly during the long period when Ferdinand Marcos was in power.

The air force and navy did not invest to upgrade their platforms to enhance defense capabilities, as Marcos focused too much on internal security, fighting the twin insurgencies of the Maoist-led guerrillas and Muslim separatists.

He expanded the army and the constabulary, acquired more helicopters and firepower to defeat rebels, and neglected air and maritime defense needed to defend sovereignty.

When he first assumed office, Marcos tried to exert power in the region by planning to grab Sabah from the Malaysians, and reclaimed land on Thitu island in the Spratlys to build the first airfield in the disputed territory.

His regional ambitions were cut by the United Kingdom, which supported Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur and other Islamic states supported Muslim separatists in the south and the United States abandoned the Philippines in its internal security problem as it faced a bigger problem in Vietnam.

Only Singapore supported Marcos, sending arms and munitions to help the Malaysian-backed Moro National Liberation Front. Singapore, which separated from Malaysia, had its own issues with its northern neighbor.

The growing internal security problem forced Marcos to retreat, allowing the United States to take care of its external defense, especially after the American defeat in Vietnam.

In 1993, after the Americans were kicked out, the Philippines realized how naked it was amid external threats, as Congress’ promise to support the P150-billion modernization plan that did not materialize. Congress approved only a P50-billion fund and proceeds from the sale of major camps in Metro Manila did not trickle in until Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became president in 2001.

Without modest credible external defense capabilities, China started asserting its influence in the region, seizing Mischief Reef and building a makeshift shelter on the half-submerged shoal.

Today, Mischief Reef has an airfield and a secured port and has expanded a hundred-fold. China has also made six other artificial islands and seized control of Scarborough Shoal.

The risks of an even greater Chinese ambition in the region looms larger if the US losses its strategic presence in the Philippines.

There is no guarantee Beijing will respect Manila’s sovereignty when the Philippines leans much closer to China, having distanced itself from the US.

China’s growing appetite for energy and food resources is far more important than friendly relations with its neighbors, like the puny Philippines.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired general, and the top brass of the defense and military establishments, has prepared a briefing for the president, looking at various scenarios and options after the VFA is terminated.

But only time can tell if the impulsive decision of Rodrigo Duterte will benefit the Philippines, or not.


A veteran defense reporter and former correspondent of the Reuters news agency, Manny Mogato won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ reporting on the Philippines’s war on drugs.