Concerns over Chinese provocative and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea might have been one of the reasons that helped convince President Rodrigo Duterte to suspend his decision to end the special relations between the country and its oldest security partner, the United States.

Barely two months before the status of forces agreement with Washington ends, Duterte instructed his foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr. to turn back the process and allow a one-year extension of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) due to “political and other developments in the region.”

Prior to the suspension, the agreement allowing US troops to train and exercise in the country on a rotation basis each year was supposed to end on Aug. 11, six months after a notice of termination was sent in February.

When the popular leader decided to abrogate what many believed to be a “one-sided” agreement favoring the Americans, the world was still very much different – there was no coronavirus pandemic that has changed the world as we knew it.

But the pandemic did not only alter the world’s social and economic life, it also raised more opportunities for China to exploit the situation in the disputed seas, taking advantage of the disruption caused by a deadly virus that originated from Wuhan, in central China.

As China emerged from the virus, less affected than Western countries like the United States, United Kingdom and France and even Russia –- all nuclear weapons states –- it started to march boldly against its domestic and external enemies.

In April, a Chinese vessel rammed into and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near Woody Island in the Beijing-held Paracel, also contested by Vietnam and Taiwan. Then, it sent coast guard ships near a Malaysian oil field in another part of the South China Sea.

Later in April, Beijing created two administrative districts to control the Paracels, including Scarborough Shoal near the main island of Luzon in the north of the disputed strategic waterways, and another in the Spratlys in the south.

Beijing’s powerful armada revolving around its first conventional aircraft carrier was making its presence felt in waters around the Asia and Pacific region, and flexing its muscles near Taiwan Straits.

One of China’s warships even made a dangerous maneuver against a US Navy destroyer in the South China Sea. Much earlier, a Chinese warship also pointed its radar gun at BRP Conrado Yap, the most capable warship in the Philippine Navy.

Southeast Asian countries that have conflicting claims on the South China Sea, except Brunei, registered diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive behavior, eroding the trust and confidence built over some time when Beijing agreed to negotiate a formal code of conduct in the region’s volatile seas.

Indonesia has recently joined the chorus of claimant states, asking China to abide by an international tribunal ruling that the Philippines won in 2016 but Duterte was so timid to invoke, as he chose to seek friendly and warm relations with China.

But China was not only busy asserting its claims on the seas. Its land forces have moved to gain positional advantage against India in the freezing Himalayas, pressuring New Delhi to abandon construction of a strategic bridge that could enhance access to the region.

Domestically, Beijing threatened Hong Kong’s autonomy with a draconian security law to silence dissent after democracy protests last year that were momentarily muted by the pandemic.

These regional developments probably triggered alarm bells, not only among countries in the region, but more particularly in the Philippines, which has relied for so long on the safety of the US security umbrella.

Duterte’s top security and diplomatic officials did not give up trying to save the VFA, which operationalizes the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), a relic of the Cold War-era security architecture and the only existing military alliance the country has with any nation in the world.

The Philippine ambassador to Washington, Manuel “Babes” Romualdez, never gave up and silently worked with his US counterpart, Sung Kim, to map out contingencies to salvage the VFA.

Locsin also played his own part by building a case against China as he fired a series of diplomatic protests to protect the country’s national interests in the South China Sea, despite backpedaling by the president’s spokesman, Harry Roque, who continued to heap praises on Beijing and ignore its bullying tactics.

Senior defense and military officials also worked quietly to find alternative ways to resuscitate an important instrument in the alliance, conscious of dramatic efforts by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to gain inroads into Camp Aguinaldo by donating medical supplies to help cope with the pandemic.

China’s provocative and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea gave an opening to both security and diplomatic officials to help convince the president to delay the abrogation of the VFA.

Based on Locsin’s diplomatic note to the US embassy in Manila, the suspension, which begins this month, will last for six months until December 2020. The Philippines can then extend it for another six months until June 2021, from when a six-month withdrawal phase begins.

Thus, from August 2020, the termination of the agreement was moved to December 2021.

But who knows? That could change again as the pandemic and China’s behavior have altered the geopolitical landscape. There could still be unforeseen events between now and December 2021.

One has to factor in the presidential elections in May 2022. By late 2021, the VFA could become an important election issue that would be hard to ignore.

Any potential candidate for president could argue to keep the VFA, raising China as a bogeyman, as most Filipinos distrust Beijing. This was clear from the adverse reactions to a music video released on YouTube by the Chinese embassy at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

Anger against China was again fueled by the recent decision to reopen Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) as well as the discovery of underground medical facilities catering to Chinese nationals.

China becoming an election issue could help fuel favorable opinion to keep the VFA after 2021.

The Philippines and the United States are back in each other’s arms.

Duterte, a self-proclaimed Socialist, has failed to sour the Filipinos’ love for the Americans. In 2022, he will step down probably as the most well-loved president, keeping a high trust and satisfactory rating, but with a failing grade on his pro-China policy.