The Philippine government has set into motion the process of terminating the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and its long-time ally and former colonial master, the United States.
Only a written notice from the Philippines is required to end a military agreement granting legal status to thousands of US troops every time they hold training and exercises in any part of the country.
After both countries agree to abrogate the treaty, the VFA will still be in effect for 180 days. But it is not that easy to end the agreement. It has to hurdle a vote in the Senate, similar to what happened in September 1991 when 12 senators voted to terminate the US military bases agreement.
The last American serviceman left Subic Naval Base, home of the US 7th Fleet, in November 1992. The US departure was hastened by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which buried the nearby Clark Air Base under tons of ashes.
If the VFA is terminated, the Americans cannot blame another erupting volcano. Taal is too far away to affect the US military forces from where they were allowed access – Subic freeport, as well as Basa Air Base in Floridablanca town and Clark Field, both in Pampanga province.
It’s a different kind of volcano — Rodrigo Duterte blew his top over the US State Department’s decision to revoke the 10-year visa of a close political ally, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, the former national police chief who implemented the brutal anti-illegal drugs campaign from July 2016.
The “war on drugs” has resulted in the deaths of thousands of poor, urban slum dwellers, in what the police have described as gun battles with drug personalities who were resisting arrest after sting operations.
Official police records showed that close to 6,000 people had died in legitimate police anti-illegal drugs operations and another 3,000 people in drug-related killings attributed to vigilante groups.
The threat to scrap the VFA was seen by many as Duterte’s knee-jerk reaction, after Senator dela Rosa’s visa was revoked.
In a speech during a trip to the central island of Leyte, the president threatened the United States that he would scrap the VFA if the Americans did not give dela Rosa a visa.
“I’m warning you this is the first time: ‘pag hindi ninyo ginawa ang correction diyan, I will terminate the basis of Visiting Forces Agreement. Tapusin ko’ng p****g inang ‘yan,” an angry Duterte said.
“I’m giving notice. I’m giving the American government one month from now.”
But before Washington could respond, Philippine officials began the process of terminating the VFA, which took effect in 1999 after the Senate ratified the agreement. The following year, the American troops returned to the country for “Balikatan” exercises, a large-scale joint and combined training activities.
What does Duterte really want to end? The VFA is merely a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that sets guidelines for temporary movement of US aircraft, ships and vehicles in the country during exercises; provide legal status to individual soldiers, sailors and marines; and acquire criminal jurisdiction on those found committing crimes and other felonies.
A separate agreement, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), grants access to the US ships, aircraft and personnel to five agreed local military bases.
Another agreement, the Mutual Logistics and Service Agreement (MLSA), allows both the US and Philippine aircraft and ships to re-supply, re-fuel and make repairs in each other’s bases. This agreement is similar to what other countries call the Acquisition and Service Agreement (ACSA).
But these agreements fall under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), a relic of the Cold War arrangement and the mother of all treaties in the robust alliance that lasted more than 70 years.
In 2003, the relations between Manila and Washington were strengthened when then President George W. Bush designated the Philippines as the only major non-NATO ally in the region, tightening the two countries’ strategic alliance.
If Duterte really wants to hurt the alliance and send the Americans begging for mercy, he should abrogate the MDT and scrap EDCA, which would be more important to the US under its new Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Duterte knows the US understands the strategic importance of the Philippines as it tries to contain a rising China in the Asia and Pacific region. Apart from its location, the US cannot find any tropical jungle to train its troops. Not in Singapore nor in Thailand. It has no excellent relations with Indonesia and Malaysia and Vietnam is still wary of American influence.
Duterte’s move to start the process of terminating the VFA could be unnecessary and illogical to some. But it could be a wake-up call for Washington which has long neglected an ally in this part of the world.
For more than 70 years, the US has made the Philippines a dumping ground of its old and obsolete military equipment, which are very expensive to maintain and operate. Most of these aircraft and ships, particularly the World War II vintage and Vietnam War relics, no longer have spare parts.
During the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the US arm-twisted the Philippines into buying second-hand UH-1H helicopters in exchange for granting an end-user certificate for refurbished UH-1H helicopters from Singapore, which are cheaper than the US units to be repaired because they were on “as is, where is” basis.
Eventually, seven choppers were delivered, but Manila bought nine units.
The US gave the Philippines a second look when Duterte came into office in 2016. Washington provided brand-new hardware, including drones and surveillance equipment, when Duterte ranted about old, second-hand equipment from the Americans.
As a major non-NATO ally, the annual US security assistance to the Philippines pales in comparison with those of Middle East countries, like Israel and Egypt, which get more than $1 billion each. Iraq receives more than $200 million a year.
Under the 2020 federal budget, foreign assistance to the entire East Asia and Pacific was cut to less than $900 million and the Philippines gets the lion’s share of close to $160 million.
Duterte may have proven to the world that he is one tough leader who could stand up against the United States. He is not afraid to say no to the world’s No. 1 superpower.
It could be an excellent bluff to get the attention of the Americans and extract more concessions. However, in the long-term, Duterte’s impulsive decision could be detrimental to the country as well as the region’s security.
Let’s hope the Philippines will not regret the historic step to end the VFA.
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.