Only weeks ago, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s shocking decision to unilaterally scrap the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) dominated conversations among Asia hands. In fact, the topic repeatedly popped up during my talks in the United States in late-February.

However, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic tightening its grip on nations across the world, conventional wisdom would suggest that traditional security considerations will be pushed to the backburner for the foreseeable future. After all, the White House is warning about the prospect of deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, while the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the virus a threat to “the whole of humanity.”

From New York to Manila and New Delhi, at least about a third of humanity is now under a de facto lockdown. But amid the current global crisis, it is increasingly clear that a robust Philippine-U.S. alliance is more vital than ever, especially given the VFA’s centrality to sustained and effective non-traditional security cooperation. And there are serious indications that the Philippines’ political establishment is intent on preserving the alliance, even in defiance of the Beijing-leaning Duterte.

Beyond the China Question  

The president’s nixing of the VFA, a linchpin of the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, is primarily viewed through the lens of U.S.-China competition. This is an understandable tendency, given Duterte’s open hostility to the West and unabashed embrace of Beijing as his strategic patron. The Filipino president himself was quick to try justifying his latest decision by emphasizing his preference for deepening security cooperation with China.

Since the VFA provides the legal framework for rotational access and large-scale entry of American troops into the Philippines, its abrogation could render a century old alliance “practically useless.” Newly-minted Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. warned earlier this year that up to half of the more than 300 annual joint military exercises between the two allies could end up on the chopping block. With the Pentagon imposing temporary suspension on overseas deployments amid the COVID-19 scare, even more exercises could be affected.

The scrapping of the VFA will also affect other corollary bilateral agreements, specifically the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was supposed to serve as a springboard for augmented U.S. military presence in strategic bases across the Philippines. Delays in initial plans to pre-position American weaponry in Philippine bases identified under EDCA, especially Basa Airbase (close to Scarborough Shoal) and Bautista Airbase (close to the Spratly Islands), have already diminished Washington’s ability to optimally project power against shared strategic threats, particularly China. Without question, Beijing will be a major beneficiary of Duterte’s latest decision, which will severely hamper the ability of the AFP and the Pentagon to conduct sustained and large-scale joint military activities.

But it is important to remember that, throughout the two decades of its existence, the VFA has been primarily a tool for non-traditional security cooperation. It was thanks to the VFA that the Philippines was able to rapidly call upon U.S. special forces to provide desperately-needed urban warfare and counter-terrorism training during the months-long Marawi siege by Islamic State-affiliated forces. It also enabled the Pentagon’s rapid provision of high-grade weaponry and real-time intelligence to support AFP operations. This was not the first time that the United States proved a critical ally against transnational terrorism—the VFA served as the primary mechanism through which the two allies waged a largely successful campaign against al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the 2000s.

The United States’ single largest military deployment to the Philippines concerned neither China nor terrorism, but instead humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HADR). Following 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged much of the central islands of the Philippines, local authorities struggled to reach far flung provinces. The U.S. military stepped in to help,  deploying 13,400 troops along with an aircraft carrier, 12 ships, and 66 aircraft to provide much-needed assistance and rescue operations across the country.

The Coming Anarchy

Just days before Duterte’s announcement that he would abrogate the VFA, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted during Senate hearings that the agreement was critical to HADR operations since “the U.S. forces are always there in times of calamities.” The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic provides even a greater impetus for tightening bilateral security cooperation.

To begin with, the country’s top brass, including AFP chief Santos and his predecessor and current Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, have been infected with the coronavirus. The month-long lockdown of Manila and the Philippines’ industrialized north has placed immense strain on the Philippine military, which is in charge of manning countless checkpoints across the island of Luzon, with former and current generals overseeing the overall lockdown operations.

With the AFP increasingly bogged down in the north, and both soldiers and generals exposed to a ravenous epidemic, insurgent groups and transnational terrorists will enjoy significant leeway in the country’s peripheries, which so far remain largely unscathed by the COVID-19 epidemic. In addition, the severity of the crisis will likely necessitate greater participation by the military in the government response, as we have seen in both the United States and the Philippines.

Notwithstanding deepening concerns over outbreaks during U.S. military drills overseas, the reality is that the U.S.-Philippine alliance is bound to gain greater importance in light of shared humanitarian and non-traditional security challenges. This is even more decidedly the case in light of China’s continuing maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters as rival claimant states and the United States struggle to contain the epidemic at home.

It is precisely in recognition of the indispensability of the alliance that the Philippines’ political establishment is mobilizing to save the VFA. Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez revealed in late-February that there are internal efforts within the Duterte administration to quickly negotiate a successor agreement to the VFA, perhaps with some amendments, if the abrogation is finalized in mid-August (180 days after the initial termination notice).

“We are now in the process of trying to find ways and means to be able to see how we can either come up with something similar, perhaps, again, still following the President’s thinking about the sovereignty issue,” Romualdez said during a panel discussion moderated by the author. “These are the two existing agreements we have with other countries [Australia and Japan] and at the moment I am not at liberty to say what or where we are but that this is being studied and the recommendation will be made to the President.”

It is not clear what exactly the Philippine ambassador is alluding to, given the immense difficulty in negotiating agreements such as the VFA, but his public comments revealed an internal scramble to maintain the coherence and relevance of the alliance. More crucially, the Philippine Senate, dominated by Duterte-friendly statesmen, have openly challenged the president, questioning his constitutional prerogative to unilaterally abrogate an agreement that was ratified by the Philippine legislature.

In early March, a group of senators from across the political spectrum, including Senate President Vicente Sotto III, challenged Duterte’s decision at the Philippine Supreme Court. The top senators asked the country’s highest court to “issue an order” to “refer [Duterte’s] Notice of Withdrawal to the Senate of the Philippines for its concurrence.” It was the first time that the country’s political establishment openly defied and legally challenged the authoritarian-leaning Duterte, underscoring the depth of the Philippine-U.S. alliance in the psyche of the Manila elite. The Philippine Supreme Court, which is far from apolitical and dominated by justices with relatively long tenures stretching beyond Duterte’s term in office, is bound to feel growing public pressure to rule in favor of maintaining the foundations of the alliance.

As of this writing, the fate of the VFA remains uncertain. What is certain is the continued relevance of the bilateral alliance as well as the concerted efforts within the Philippine political establishment to either forestall the abrogation’s finalization later this year or, alternatively, quickly negotiate a new agreement, whether transitional (to allow the continuation of pre-planned joint military activities with the Pentagon) or more long-term. For its part, the White House and the Pentagon should look to closely cooperate with like-minded officials in Manila to maintain the integrity of a century-old alliance in an era of unprecedented security challenges.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.