Philippines Tells U.S. It Will End Military Cooperation Deal
MANILA — The Philippines said Tuesday it had officially informed the United States that it was scrapping a military pact that has given the longtime American ally a security blanket for the past two decades.
The notice to terminate the pact, the Visiting Forces Agreement, comes as President Rodrigo Duterte has warmed up to China while distancing himself from the United States, the Philippines’ former colonial ruler. The move also comes as the Philippines has shown increasing reluctance to stand up to China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The agreement has let the United States rotate its forces through Philippine military bases. It has allowed for about 300 joint exercises annually between the American and Philippine militaries, said R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. He told reporters Monday the termination of the agreement would put those operations “at risk.”
The pact still remains in force, but the notice to terminate it, delivered to the American Embassy in Manila, starts a clock under which it will remain in effect for 180 days before lapsing.
“The deputy chief of mission of the United States has received the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on Twitter in announcing the move.
Mr. Duterte, who is known for his volatility, has a history of making threats that he has not followed through on. But this time he seems intent on bucking the United States, as well as Philippine lawmakers who oppose ending the pact and could try to thwart him.
The decision by the Philippine government comes as Mr. Duterte has grown increasingly belligerent toward the United States, principally over Washington’s refusal to grant a visa to Senator Ronald dela Rosa, the early architect of Mr. Duterte’s violent war against drugs.
Mr. Duterte’s threats to end the pact have alarmed some in his own administration, who see the American military alliance as a bedrock of Philippine security and a counterweight to China’s growing naval might in the South China Sea.
Appearing before the Philippine Senate last week, Mr. Locsin cautioned against ending the pact, which has allowed for large-scale joint military exercises between the two allies after the American military was kicked out of the Subic and Clark naval bases north of Manila in the early 1990s over lease disagreements. The bases were once the largest American military installations outside the United States.
The foreign secretary said neither he nor the Philippine Department of National Defense was asked for advice on ending the pact. Without the agreement, Mr. Locsin said, the United States would have its hands tied in assisting the Philippines, its oldest military ally in Asia, should it come under attack.
What is unlikely to be affected by Tuesday’s announcement is the American counterterror mission in the country’s south that exists separate of the hundreds of annual exercises Duterte has threatened to end.
The American military keeps a small contingent of around 250 troops there as part of a campaign that has existed in some capacity since 2002. The American forces are predominantly deployed to the Mindanao island chain, where about 500 Islamic State fighters are thought to be scattered. There, the Americans assist their Philippine counterparts predominantly with overhead surveillance aircraft and assistance known as Operation Pacific Eagle.
During the 2017 battle of Marawi on the main island of Mindanao, which killed hundreds and turned much of the city to rubble, American Marines helped the Philippine military hunt deadly Islamic State snipers.
With much of Marawi still destroyed, Chinese companies have moved to step in with reconstruction efforts, offering low prices to hopefully capitalize on future returns. This tactic has, in many ways, become commonplace for those struggling countries on China’s periphery.
Thomas M. Sanderson, former director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ transnational threats program, said Mr. Duterte’s decision also potentially hands China another market for its increasingly sophisticated surveillance drones that combatants are using in Yemen and Libya. “It’s a real-world laboratory for Chinese drones,” said Mr. Sanderson, who has traveled extensively with the Philippine military.
In recent years, the United States has stepped up naval maneuvers with the Philippines as it seeks to counter China’s growing challenge to the decades-long American naval dominance of the South China Sea. The frequency of those maneuvers has alarmed some in the Philippines, with the defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, warning last year that they could provoke conflict with China.
In addition to courting the Philippines, China has used its clout and economic might to bring other Southeast Asian countries into its sphere of influence, including Cambodia, which American officials fear is being turned by Beijing into a military outpost for Chinese ambitions.
Many Philippine military leaders and politicians favor sticking with the joint forces treaty, and lawmakers have said that ending the country’s participation in the agreement would require the Senate’s assent.
Mr. Locsin, the foreign secretary, said the Visiting Forces Agreement enabled Philippine troops to receive much-needed training on nontraditional threats such as combating illegal drugs and terrorism.
But on Monday night, Mr. Duterte again lashed out at America and its military, saying Washington had always gotten the better end of the deal. He said that after large-scale war games, the American troops take their modern weapons with them when they depart.
“They do not leave it with us. None,” Mr. Duterte said.
“Trump and others are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he added of the American president. “I told them, I do not want to. One is that Americans are very ill mannered,” he said, cursing Central Intelligence Agency agents who he said may be listening to him.
He also dismissed the deterrent effect of American forces against outside influences like China.
“They do not mean harm,” he said of China and its military, as long as “we do not also do something that is harmful to them.”