For as long as they could, both Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana tried to resist President Rodrigo Duterte on his decision to terminate the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. But he was so determined, so on February 11, 2020, he sent the notice of termination to the US government. This takes effect after 180 days.

I see two ways of looking at it. One, it is the end of a relationship—and a very special one at that. Or two, it is the beginning of a new relationship, and hopefully a much better one at that. The end, if by terminating the VFA we also terminate our historic alliance with the US; the beginning, if by doing so, we terminate the current agreement in order to improve it.

Either a disaster or an opportunity. If DU30’s real motive is to improve , rather than cut off, security ties with the US, he can transform what may appear a disaster into a real opportunity. He can have a much better deal with the US. One way of doing so is to arrange a bilateral review of the defense and security relations between the Philippines and the US, even before the 180-day termination period runs out.

The VFA is an implementing agreement of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. This defines the basic security relationship between the Philippines and the US. The MDT came after the 1947 military bases agreement, but remained in force after the MBA expired in 1991. Under Article II, the Parties are obliged “separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid (to) maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

This allowed US troops, in theory, to participate in military exercises in the Philippines, even after the expiration of the MBA. But a formal agreement was needed to define the rights and duties of the US visiting forces. Thus the VFA. Its abrogation would now render the MDT toothless and inoperative.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper was reported as regretting the scrapping of the VFA as the wrong move. That is an understandable reaction, and he is right if it means scrapping the security alliance between the two countries. But he is wrong if scrapping the VFA would lead to improving the terms of their defense partnership.

In fact, this is what the two governments must do—upgrade the terms of their partnership. This can begin with a bilateral review of the MDT, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement of 2014, and even the Military Assistance Agreement of 1953. Perhaps the old agreements no longer correspond to the new security environment; this has changed and is changing, and should be allowed to upgrade the terms and conditions of their security treaties.

Under Article IV of the MDT, “each party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

For purposes of Article IV, Article V provides that, “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

However, as US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance points out in his letter to Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo on Jan. 6, 1979, “an attack on `Philippine armed forces, `public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific would not have to occur within the metropolitan territory of the Philippines or island territories under its jurisdiction to come within the definition of Pacific area in Article V.”

The main complaint about this treaty, since the days of Sen. Claro M. Recto, is that it lacks the automatic retaliation clause in Article V of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty and does not protect the Philippines enough. Under the NATO treaty, “The Parties agree that an armed attack on one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in contact with other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

In NATO, the armed response to an aggression is automatic. Anxiety about a delayed US response to an attack on the Philippines is not calmed by the tendency of the US President since Tonkin Gulf to wage war on its enemies even without a declaration of war from Congress; for so long as the treaty remains vague that anxiety remains.

One question being raised today has to do with the name of the actual enemy in the current scenario. When the MDT came into being during the Cold War, international communism was the declared enemy of the “Free World.” But even before the demise of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, we were already seeing China’s shift to market capitalism and its peaceful rise to become the world’s second largest economic power.

Now, even as the historian Niall Ferguson speaks of a “new Cold War”, DU30 has fully pivoted to China, regardless of its occupation and militarization of islands, reefs and maritime features within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea. DU30’s decision to abrogate the VFA has prompted Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., AFP Chief of Staff, to say the AFP is now considering replacement—VFAs with China and Japan.

This is completely absurd and irresponsible. We have a raging territorial dispute with China, and Japan has a self-defense force which its government cannot legally commit to the defense of a neighbor under attack by an external aggressor. Moreover, this is a strictly political matter outside the competence and jurisdiction of even the highest ranking military official. One depth has certainly led to another.