On February 12, President Rodrigo Duterte, in anguish, finally admitted the importance of the Philippines-U.S. alliance and the need to renegotiate with Washington the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The statement marked a significant shift in Duterte’s rhetoric on the matter from a year ago, when he pushed for abrogation of the VFA despite the concerns of top cabinet members—a recalibration likely owed in part to China’s continued assertiveness in the South China Sea.

After inspecting the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) newly acquired air assets at Clark Air Base, Duterte gave an address in which he acknowledged that the Philippines and the United States shared a “responsibility, but your (American) responsibility does not come free, after all, when the war breaks out, we all pay.” He lamented that American troops have been given a free rein to operate in Philippine territory (during joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises), which he does not like because he wants the Philippines to be neutral. In the end, however, he admitted that the “exigency of the moment requires their presence here (in the Philippines), I am okay with that.”

However, he also expressed his fear that a conflict between the United States and China would drag the Philippines into the middle of a major power war. Duterte noted the Philippines’ strategic location, being nearest to China’s outposts in the South China Sea. He explained that he has been accommodating to China to avoid a “confrontation that would lead to something which we [the Philippines] can hardly afford, at least not at this time.” He also publicly admitted his personal animosity toward the United States, but said that he would put such feelings aside in light of the country’s current needs.

After he made the remarks, analysts and opposition politicians criticized Duterte for demanding that the United States “pay” if it wants to continue the VFA with the Philippines. He was accused of being an extortionist. Actually, what Duterte is asking from Washington is not new. During the 1979 bases negotiations, the late president Ferdinand Marcos successfully linked U.S. access to Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base in the Philippines with the amount of military and economic assistance his regime received from Washington. Succeeding presidents have linked any arrangements involving American military access to Philippine territory with the expectation that the United States would extend military assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Philippine Senate’s concurrence on the VFA in 1999 led to the resumption of U.S. military and technical aid to the Philippine military after the last tranche of U.S.-base related military assistance had ended in 1994. By demanding U.S. assistance in exchange for a renegotiated VFA, Duterte is conveying the message to Washington that he is fine with this transactional arrangement in the alliance.

Testing the Appeasement Policy

A year ago, on February 11, 2020, President Duterte unilaterally abrogated the VFA after the U.S. State Department cancelled the visa of his close friend and former police chief, Senator Ronaldo De La Rosa. Analysts, however, doubted that this was the actual reason behind his decision to terminate the agreement. Instead, there were two more likely reasons to explain this move. First, it was a fulfillment of his 2016 promise to expel U.S. troops from the Philippines by the end of his term in 2022, as he gravitated toward China for economic assistance, investment, and trade opportunities. Second, he was concerned about the Philippines’ being trapped in a U.S.-China armed conflict in the South China Sea.

Two of his key cabinet members, however, were uneasy with the president’s appeasement policy toward China. Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana has been very vocal concerning the unannounced passage of People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in Philippine territorial waters in Mindanao and on China’s unlawful radio warnings to PAF reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. For his part, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin has instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs to file 45 diplomatic notes against China for provocations, threats, or coercion against Philippine military and civilian vessels or planes in the South China Sea.

These two cabinet members also aired their reservations about Duterte’s decision to abrogate the VFA. Fortunately, China provided Secretaries Lorenzana and Locsin with a little help in convincing President Duterte to twice suspend the VFA’s termination process last year, and hopefully renegotiate a new status of forces agreement. On February 17, a PLAN corvette pointed a director—part of its fire control system—toward the Philippine Navy’s anti-submarine corvette BRP Conrado Yap near Commodore Reef in the South China Sea. In early April, China inaugurated two maritime research stations on artificial islands that are claimed by the Philippines: Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs. In late December 2020, satellite images revealed that China deployed its largest military aircraft, the Y-20 transport, to Fiery Cross Reef for the first time. The deployment was followed by a series of Chinese military exercises in the waters surrounding Hainan Island. And on January 23, China’s legislature passed a new coastguard law authorizing China Coast Guard vessels to fire at foreign ships. This seems to have been the final push forcing the Duterte administration to place its alliance with the United States on a firmer footing by pursuing negotiations on a new VFA.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.