President Rodrigo Duterte has walked back on a decision to end the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Friday during a visit by Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin.
Duterte told the United States in February last year he planned to axe the VFA after Washington cancelled the visa of a close ally who led his internationally condemned war on drugs.
The deal has been extended three times since then, most recently in June after months of negotiations between the two sides.
Lorenzana said Friday the VFA was "in full force again," during a news conference with Austin, who was in Manila on the last stop of a Southeast Asia tour.
"Last night, after the meeting between Secretary Austin and the President… the President decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA," Lorenzana said. "We are back on track.”
The 1998 VFA provides the legal framework for the US to hold joint military exercises and operations in the Philippines and is a key component of their decades-long alliance.
It is also seen as a bulwark against China's growing clout in the region.
Austin, who was visiting Southeast Asia for the first time as US defense secretary, welcomed Duterte's decision, saying it "provides us some degree of certainty going forward.”
"A strong, resilient US-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific," Austin said.
"A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together."
The move comes with tensions growing in the hotly contested South China Sea, where Beijing's growing assertiveness has raised alarm.
China claims almost all of the resource-rich sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)
Manila was angered after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in March, sparking a war of words between the two countries.
Speaking in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin said China's claim to the vast majority of the waters had "no basis in international law" and reiterated the United States would support countries defending their rights.
Duterte has sought to pivot away from the United States, the Philippines' former colonial master, towards China since taking power in 2016 and has appeared reluctant to confront Beijing.
But facing growing domestic pressure to take a harder line, Duterte has insisted Philippine sovereignty over the waters is not negotiable.
"Gone are the days when the Philippines decides and acts in the shadows of great powers," Duterte said Monday.
"We will assert what is rightfully ours and fight for what is rightfully due to the Filipino people."
The Palace said the President recalled the abrogation of the VFA based on the two countries’ respect for the partnership between sovereign equals.
The Philippines also sought clarity about the US position on its obligations and commitments under its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with Manila.
The President’s decision to recall the abrogation of VFA is to uphold the Philippines strategic core interests, the clear definition of PH-US alliance as one between sovereign equals, and clarity of US position on its obligations and commitments under Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT),” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
The VFA, a 1998 defense deal between Manila and Washington, allows American forces to enter the Philippines sans passport and visa to allow them to participate in joint military drills in the host country.
The two countries are currently holding talks to come up with a “side agreement” that will serve as an addendum to the VFA.
During their meeting, Duterte and Austin agreed to strengthen the two nations’ alliance “through enhanced communication and greater cooperation” in areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments.
“The President also thanked the US for its assistance to the Philippines’ fight against COVID-19,” Roque said.
Austin said he has great respect for the Filipino people and conveyed US President Joe Biden’s greetings to the President.
The United States on Friday welcomed the President’s decision.
“We strongly believe that the VFA, and the broader alliance that the VFA enables, strengthens not only the security of our two nations, but also the rules-based order that benefits all nations in the Indo-Pacific,” the US government through its embassy in Manila said.
Washington also expressed optimism that the continuation of the VFA will pave the way for “a strong, resilient US-Philippine alliance” that “will remain vital for the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Friday handed over the diplomatic note recalling the abrogation of the VFA to Austin, saying Washington has addressed “with good faith” issues relevant to the security relationship between the two countries.
Locsin said the US has shown its commitment to fulfill its obligations to the Philippines under the alliance.
Austin was in the country for a two-day visit as part of this three-nation Southeast Asian swing.
Locsin noted that the alliance has stayed strong and overcome challenges despite the earlier VFA abrogation.
“It is vital to maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region. All the protagonists in the region, without a single exception, see a strong US presence as imperative to peace and stability in Southeast Asia. They are the precondition for mutually beneficial cooperation rather than destructive conflict among themselves,” Locsin said.
The recall of the VFA termination comes on the heels of this year’s double celebration of the 75th Philippines-US diplomatic relations and 70 years of Mutual Defense Treaty.
“This is a special year for the Philippines-US alliance. We celebrate not just 75 years of diplomatic relations, but also 70 years of the Mutual Defense Treaty, 70 years of the United States being our only defense treaty ally,” Locsin said.
Leaders of the House of Representatives led by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and House Majority Leader Martin G. Romualdez on Friday backed the decision of President Duterte to recall the abrogation of the VFA.
"I fully support the decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to recall the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. This will definitely help strengthen bilateral cooperation between the two countries, which is crucial in this age of pandemic," Romualdez, chairman of the House committee on rules, said in a statement.
He added: "We should welcome all efforts to shore up relations with other countries, especially with our allies, as only through global cooperation can we survive from this world-wide crisis."
Velasco said he hoped this development would be the start of a closer and more cordial relationship between the Philippines and its long-time ally.
"Now, more than ever, we need to maintain strong ties with the United States given the current uncertain and challenging international political environment that was further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic," Velasco said.
Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon also welcomed the President’s decision.
"It is assumed that Secretary Austin conveyed the Biden administration’s commitment to standing by the Philippines for mutual interest and benefit, particularly on security issues, hence the President’s redirection of his policy on the PH-US defense agreement," Biazon said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson aired his full support for Duterte’s decision, saying he believed the President put the interest and welfare of the people above all else.
"Whatever underlying conditions there are in arriving at that decision, if it was connected to additional vaccine donations or any other reasons, I'm sure President Rodrigo Duterte was influenced by the interest of the country and our people," he said.
Lacson noted that the termination of the VFA would have done our country's security situation more harm than good, especially at this time when incursions into the country’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea have become more aggressive and unabated.