MANILA (UPDATED) — President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to extend the suspension of the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement between Manila and Washington, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Monday, as Beijing's threat in the West Philippine Sea remains.
DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Duterte made the decision on the two-decade-old VFA in a meeting with him and Philippine ambassador to the US Jose Manuel "Babe" Romualdez.
"The President conveyed to us his decision to extend the suspension of the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement by another 6 months while he studies and both sides further address his concerns regarding particular aspects of the agreement," DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said in a message posted on Twitter.
Locsin did not elaborate.
This is the third suspension of the abrogation since the Philippines announced it was pulling out of the VFA on February 2020.
The US is the Philippines' defense ally.
Last February, President Rodrigo Duterte said Washington must "pay" a toll, if it wants to keep the VFA with Manila.
The US earlier this June said the Philippines would get a portion of its surplus vaccines against COVID-19. Malacañang said Duterte was the only one who could decide on how the vaccine donation would affect the VFA.
The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. Experts say without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.
The MDT states the two countries will come to each other's defense in case their metropolitan areas or territories are attacked.
The Philippine since March has repeatedly protested the "swarming" of some 200 Chinese ships believed to be banned by militia in the West Philippine Sea.
Beijing refuses to recognize a 2016 ruling that junked its claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea, within which is the smaller Philippine waters.
Duterte has shelved the ruling as he pursued investments and loans from China. In May, he said the ruling was a scrap of "paper" that could be thrown into the wastebasket. Days after, he said he would not withdraw Philippine ships from the waterway.
Romualdez the US was willing to assist the Philippines to push back against Chinese incursion of its territorial waters.
Ties between the US and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte's rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning US foreign policy, and open embrace of China.
Duterte unilaterally canceled the VFA last year, in an angry response after an ally was denied a US visa. He had then cited "political and other developments in the region.
The withdrawal period has been twice extended, however, to create what Philippine officials have said is a window for better terms.
Some legal experts said Duterte needs Senate concurrence to terminate the VFA. They point out that the 1987 Constitution states that no treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate.
The VFA was crafted in 1998, 7 years after the Philippine Senate rejected extending the presence of US military bases in the country. The Senate voted 18-5 to concur with the ratification of the pact, and it took effect in 1999.
Last year, the Senate sought the Supreme Court's clarification on the Senate's role in the cancellation of treaties after Duterte's order to abrogate the VFA.
The Senate plea is still pending at the high court.
– With reports from Willard Cheng and Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Reuters