MANILA (UPDATE) – The Philippines on Tuesday formally notified the United States it is pulling out of the Visiting Forces Agreement that the treaty allies signed in 1998, officials said.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. signed the notice on Tuesday, which he said was received on the same day by US Deputy Chief of Mission John Law, at the embassy in Manila.
Orders to send the notice were given by President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night, his spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
“The Executive Secretary sent the message to Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin, and the latter signed the notice of termination and sent to the US government today,” Panelo told reporters.
Panelo said the termination of the pact, which governs the conduct of American troops in the country, will take effect 180 days after the US government receives the notice. The VFA is anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty of Manila and Washington.
The US has yet to issue a statement on the latest development.
Duterte has in the past complained against the US, the latest of which involved the US visa cancellation of his ally Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, who led his bloody war on drugs as police chief from 2016 to 2018.
While there was no explanation on the revocation of his visa, Dela Rosa himself said it might be related to his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings linked to the anti-narcotics campaign on which the US had expressed concern.
Panelo said Duterte is currently eyeing a more self-reliant Philippine military, instead of seeking another military agreement with another country.
“The President said it’s about time we rely on our self. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country…From the way he talks, parang tayo na lang muna (let’s rather be self-reliant),” Panelo said.
Duterte had long sought to distance Manila from its long-time ally, and openly expressed preference to foster warmer ties with economic giant China and nuclear superpower Russia.
So far, Manila has yet to receive any offer of a possible military agreement with either Beijing and Moscow, according to Panelo.
On Monday, a US official warned that the VFA termination, which was still being planned at the time of his remarks, will affect hundreds of military-to-military engagements between Manila and Washington.
“The United States has about 300 engagements and exercises that we conduct bilaterally with the Philippines,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper said in a teleconference interview from Singapore.
The transcript of Cooper’s interview made available to other journalists, quoted him saying “there is a significant amount of resources that had been invested” in the two countries’ relationship.
“I don’t think anyone in the government of the Philippines would want to put at risk the numerous engagements,” Cooper said.
The 300 engagements include joint military exercises and port calls between Filipino and American soldiers.
“This is where that impact would probably be mostly felt, and this is why it’s a worthy conversation to have with our Philippine interlocutors, is that of all the engagements, all the freedom of navigation operations, all the exercises, all the joint training, having U.S. military personnel in port, on the ground, on the flight line, does require that we have a mechanism that allows that, and that’s why the VFA is so important.”
“So I imagine if one was sitting in Manila, that regardless if they’re in ministerial capacity or if they’re actually in an operational service capacity, they do not want to see any of these engagements or exercises either be reduced or disappear,” he said.
Cooper said there is already a tentative schedule for a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in March this year.
“Certainly the Visiting Forces Agreement would be part of that dialogue, but it’ll also be part of the broader commitments that we have with each other,” he said, mentioning the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014.
Cooper said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Philippines last year was already a sign of “recommitment at ministerial levels.”
But Panelo said next month's scheduled meeting “has been overrun by the fact that we sent a notice of termination.”
Cooper said other risks that countries like the Philippines can face when dealing with other partners is exploitation and coercion.
“There is some risk where if partners are moving to get something at a – you know, a credit process that may be dodgy, to put it in the colloquial way, or puts a government’s budget at risk, that is a risk of losing sovereignty there,” he said.