Philippines Notifies U.S. of Intent to End Major Security Pact

MANILA (AP) -
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool Photo via AP, File)

The Philippines notified the United States on Tuesday that it would end a major security pact allowing American forces to train in the country, in the most serious threat under President Rodrigo Duterte to their 69-year treaty alliance.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a tweet that Manila’s notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement was received by the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He refused to provide other details on the drastic step “as a diplomatic courtesy.”

Locsin signed the notice on the order of Duterte, who has often criticized U.S. security policies while praising those of China and Russia despite the Philippine military’s close historic ties with its American counterpart.

In a Senate hearing last week, Locsin warned that abrogating the security accord with Washington would undermine Philippine security and foster aggression in the disputed South China Sea. U.S. military presence in the strategic waterway has been seen as a crucial counterweight to China, which claims virtually the entire sea.

Locsin proposed a review of the agreement to fix contentious issues instead of abrogating it. Philippine defense and military officials did not immediately issue any reaction to the government move.

The termination of the 1999 agreement would take effect 180 days after Washington received Manila’s notice but both could negotiate and decide to keep the pact during the waiting period, Philippine officials said.

Duterte threatened to terminate the security agreement after Washington reportedly canceled the U.S. visa of his loyal ally, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who was linked to human rights violations when he first enforced the president’s deadly anti-contraband crackdown as the national police chief in 2016.

Thousands of mostly poor suspects have been killed under the campaign Duterte launched when he took office in mid-2016, alarming the U.S. and other Western governments and human rights watchdogs.

Duterte gave the U.S. a month to restore dela Rosa’s visa, but U.S. officials have not publicly reacted to the Philippine leader’s demand.

Duterte said in a speech late Monday that President Donald Trump has moved to save the agreement but added that he rejected the idea. He accused the U.S. of meddling in Philippine affairs, including seeking the release of an opposition senator he has accused of involvement in contraband traffic.

“America is very rude. They are so rude,” Duterte said.

Locsin outlined in last week’s Senate hearing what he said were the crucial security, trade and economic benefits the accord provides. The U.S. is a longtime treaty ally, a major trading partner and the largest development aid provider to the Philippines.

The accord, known by its acronym VFA, legally allows the entry of American forces along with U.S. military ships and aircraft for joint training with Filipino troops.

A separate defense pact subsequently signed by the allies in 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, allows the extended stay of U.S. forces and authorizes them to build and maintain barracks and warehouses, store defense equipment and weapons inside five designated Philippine military camps.

A Filipino senator and former national police chief, Panfilo Lacson, said terminating the treaty would reduce the two allies’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty “to a mere paper treaty as far as the U.S. is concerned.”

Some Philippine senators have said the government decision to terminate the treaty, which the Senate ratified, would need the chamber’s consent.

U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper said in a telephone news conference Monday that abrogating the pact would put at risk more than 300 military engagements, including joint training this year between the allies.

“All the engagements, all the freedom of navigation operations, all the exercises, all the joint training, having U.S. military personnel in port, on the ground, on the flight line, does require that we have a mechanism that allows that,” he said. “That’s why the VFA is so important.”

Terminating the VFA would affect the joint exercises and other activities with U.S. forces “which the Philippine military and law enforcement agencies need to enhance their capabilities in countering threats to national security,” Locsin said.

The U.S. provided more than $550 million in security assistance to the Philippines from 2016 to 2019, Locsin said, adding that there may be a “chilling effect on our economic relations” if the Philippines draws down its security alliance with Washington.

American forces have provided intelligence, training and aid that allowed the Philippines to deal with terrorism, cyberattacks, entry of contraband and more, Locsin said, citing how U.S. military assistance helped Filipino forces quell a disastrous siege by Islamic State group-aligned terrorists in Marawi city in 2017.

U.S. military presence in the South China Sea has also been a deterrent to aggressive actions in the disputed waters, Locsin said. China, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have rival claims in the strategic waterway.

Duterte first threatened to abrogate the VFA in late 2016 after a U.S. aid agency put on hold funds for anti-poverty projects in the Philippines. He has walked back such public threats before, but his government’s action on Tuesday is the most serious indication so far of his intent to set back military relations with the U.S.

Aside from threatening to end the VFA, Duterte has said he will ban some U.S. senators from entering the Philippines. He apparently was referring to American senators who sought to prevent unspecified Philippine officials from entering the U.S. for their role in the continued detention of Philippine opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, a vocal critic of Duterte’s deadly contraband campaign.

Duterte has also barred Cabinet officials from traveling to the U.S. and turned down an invitation by Trump to join a special meeting the U.S. leader will host for leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in March in Las Vegas.