The Philippines is restoring a military agreement with the US that will make it easier for US forces to enter and exit the country and signal to China a renewed commitment to the 70-year-old US-Philippine alliance.
In a joint news conference in Manila on Friday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the re-establishment of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
The VFA, which was first signed in 1988, allows US military aircraft and vessels to fly freely into the Philippines and relaxes visa requirements for US military personnel. It is considered crucial for Washington to be able to protect the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.
According to Reuters, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had previously promised to end the agreement, but had repeatedly pushed back the deadline, keeping it until the end of the year.
Austin applauded Duterte’s decision to go back on his word, thanking him for his decision to fully restore the agreement. “A strong, resilient US-Philippines alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together.”
Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station, two of America’s largest military bases outside of the US, were once located in the Philippines.
Despite the fact that those bases were no longer US bases in the early 1990s, US forces had access to them under the VFA, and Manila maintained close military ties with Washington.
However, in recent years, Duterte has shifted his focus away from the United States and toward China, which has offered Manila a more favorable economic relationship.
“I need China. More than anybody else at this point, I need China,” Duterte said before flying to Beijing in April 2018.
Since 2014, China has been working to transform a number of remote reefs and sandbars in the waterway into man-made artificial islands armed with missiles, runways, and weapons systems, prompting international condemnation, including from Manila.
In a maritime dispute in 2016, a tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, concluding that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the vast majority of the South China Sea.
As Chinese activity inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea has strained the Manila-Beijing relationship, Duterte’s pursuit of closer ties with Beijing has come under increasing pressure at home this year.
The Philippines took a tough stance earlier this year over the presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), particularly after China chastised Manila for staging naval and coast guard exercises in the South China Sea.
At the time, Duterte stated that his country’s sovereignty in the waterway would not be compromised.
“So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war,” Duterte said in a late night address. “But there are things that are not really subject to a compromise … I hope they will understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect,” Duterte said.
Despite the fact that the VFA disagreement had strained US-Philippine military relations, US officials insisted that the mutual defense treaty had not been weakened as a result of it.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the US commitment to defend the Philippines’ armed forces on the fifth anniversary of The Hague ruling earlier this month.
In the event of any Chinese military action against Philippine assets in the region, the US could invoke the US-Philippine mutual defense pact, according to the US’ top diplomat.
“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Blinken said.