Despite pleas from several senior Philippine senators to reconsider his plan to abrogate the Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), President Rodrigo Duterte has reportedly decided to scrap the 20-year old treaty. According to his presidential spokesperson, Duterte has already ordered his executive secretary to instruct Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin to serve the notice of termination to the United States government. A day earlier, Locsin had warned the Philippine Senate that abrogating the agreement would undermine the country’s security and encourage aggression in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, it appears that the Philippine president is ignoring his foreign secretary’s plea for a vigorous review rather than termination of the VFA.
President Duterte originally said that his decision to terminate the VFA stemmed from the U.S. government’s cancellation of the visa of his former police chief, close friend, and now senator Ronald “Bato” De La Rosa. This has created an impression that the abrogation was a kneejerk reaction to a slight and could therefore be remedied by assuaging the president. However, behind this veneer of personal grievance lies a long-term desire to wean the Philippines away from the United States and deliver it into a strategic alignment with China before Duterte’s term ends in 2022. That is exactly what the president has been promising to do since taking office.
Weaning the Philippines Away from the U.S.
A few months after he assumed office, President Duterte launched several moves aimed to separate the Philippines from the United States. On September 12, 2016, he suddenly announced that U.S. Special Forces in Mindanao must leave the country. On a two-day official visit to Vietnam later that month, he disclosed that the Philippine-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise scheduled for October would be the last military exercise between the two allies during his six-year term. In late September, he also announced that he would forge “new alliances” with China and Russia to cushion the impact of the possible withdrawal of the United States from the Philippines starting in 2017. Duterte then revealed plans to visit China and Russia, chart an independent foreign policy, and “open (new) alliances” with these two major powers. During his October 21 state visit to Beijing, he declared his “separation” from the United States and his realignment with China as the two countries agreed to resolve their disputes in the South China Sea through bilateral negotiations.
The leadership of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), however, thwarted Duterte’s early efforts to gravitate toward China by quietly confronting him over his pronouncements. The Philippine military was not comfortable with their commander-in-chief’s sudden pivot to China given the country’s almost 70-year alliance with the United States and American security assistance to the AFP. On November 8, 2016, Duterte pulled back from his earlier statements on separating from the United States. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that the president had decided not to abrogate the Philippine-U.S. security alliance and to implement the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Confronted by his resistance within his own military and defense bureaucracy, President Duterte appears to have decided to bide his time and wait for a more opportune moment.
Waiting for the Right Time
Now two years from the end of his term in 2022, President Duterte seems to believe that the time is ripe to tone down the Philippines’ security relations with the United States. There are two reasons behind this decision. First, he believes that the AFP will now support his move since he has increased the defense budget, funded the military’s modernization program, and promoted senior officers who will be loyal to him. Second, he believes that China is now the preeminent power in Asia and has regional military superiority over the United States. Duterte has consistently parroted Beijing’s rhetoric, including by blaming outside interference for destabilizing the South China Sea and insisting that American alliances and forward-deployed forces in the region are no longer necessary in a post-Cold War world.
Duterte seems to believe that he can play an important role in making the regional environment more accommodating for China, helping it to create a new strategic equilibrium vis-à-vis the United States. This means undermining the United States greatest strategic advantage in its competition with China—its alliances. By pivoting away from the United States toward China, President Duterte is showing the world that an explicitly anti-China alliance under U.S. leadership will fail and that Southeast Asian countries, even American allies, can accept an illiberal Sino-centric regional order.
A few days before he threatened to abrogate the VFA, Duterte said in an interview that a conflict in the South China Sea would crush the Philippines and that he is wary that the United States would take advantage to spark a wider conflict. He openly expressed his fears of an intervention by the United States that would push any conflict in the South China Sea in an unforeseen direction. Clearly he does not consider the Philippine-U.S. alliance a stabilizing factor in the South China Sea dispute or a deterrent against aggression. Rather he sees it as a fuse that can ignite a major regional conflict. Secretary Locsin warned that the abrogation of the VFA would render the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement useless. President Duterte’s own words suggest this is exactly what he has been seeking since he took office.