Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte aims to end his country’s reliance on the United States as a military partner by withdrawing from the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two nations ostensibly over Washington’s denial of a visa for one of his political allies. But behind this façade of triviality and pettiness, argues Renato Cruz De Castro of De La Salle University in Manila, is a concerted plan to shift the Philippines away from the US and closer to China, with which Manila is locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, to ease regional tension and end the risks of an outright armed confrontation.
The president meets US military and diplomatic officials in 2017: Duterte sees American forces not as a deterrent but as a potential fuse in an explosive South China Sea (Credit: US State Department)
“I do not like the Americans,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared in 2016, arguing that the US military presence in his country should end. “It’s simply a matter of principle for me.” On February 11 this year, he directed his Foreign Secretary, Teodoro Locsin, to notify the US that he is terminating the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo revealed that Locsin had signed the Philippines’ notice of termination and sent it to Washington and that the termination of the VFA would take effect 180 days after the American government received the notification.
The day before the announcement, Philippine Senate President Vicente Sotto II and a dozen senators asked the president to reconsider the abrogation. They argued that the agreement is beneficial to both nations and backed Locsin’s suggestion to call for a vigorous review of the VFA rather than its ending. They also argued that the Senate must be consulted on foreign policy as a matter of checks-and-balance oversight.
Duterte, however, slammed the door on any attempt to salvage the 20-year-old agreement, explaining that the main reason behind his decision to terminate it was the cancellation of the US visa of the president’s friend and former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, now senator, Ronald dela Rosa over the latter’s involvement in the detention of the president’s most strident critic, Senator Leila de Lima. Manila says the decision to end the VFA is a consequence of a series of actions by the US government that assaulted Philippine sovereignty and showed disrespect to the country’s judicial system.
First attempt to cross a national-security Rubicon
While Duterte created and nurtured the impression that his abrogation of the VFA was a reaction to personal slights, his actions will have significant adverse consequences for national security. Behind a façade of triviality and pettiness is Duterte’s long-held plan for the weaning of the Philippines away from the US and pivoting the country towards China.
Even before he became president, Duterte believed that the Philippines does not have the capability to challenge China in the South China Sea. He also doubted Washington’s willingness to back the Philippines in any military confrontation with China over the disputed maritime territory. For him, the only option for the country is to foster economic interdependence with China, which will likely ease tensions and end the risks of an outright armed confrontation.
The shift began in September 2016, when on successive days, Duterte announced that US special operations troops in the restive island of Mindanao had to leave the country and that the Philippine naval forces would stop joint patrols with the US to avoid upsetting China. The same month, Duterte said that the Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercise that was to be conducted in October would be the last military exercise between the two allies during his six-year term. Though he promised to honor his nation’s long-standing mutual defense treaty with the US, he noted that China opposed the joint US-Philippine military drills.
Duterte also announced that he would forge “new alliances” with China and Russia to cushion the impact of a possible withdrawal of the US from the Philippines in 2017. In a speech, he urged Filipinos to make a small sacrifice for his plan of proverbially crossing the Rubicon in his ties with the U.S. He also revealed his plans to visit China and Russia, chart an independent foreign policy, and build new relationships with these two major powers.
When Duterte returned to Manila, however, he said that he would not sever his country’s alliance with the US, explaining that “separation” merely meant that the Philippines would chart its own path. Duterte retreated from his initial position to abrogate the Philippine-US alliance after realizing that he would be alienating the Philippine military, which considers its links with the American armed forces as vital for its operations. The US military has been providing technical assistance in combatting Muslim militants in the southern Philippines, training Filipino officers and enlisted men, and staging joint military exercises for seven decades.
Duterte and the military reached an agreement to keep the Philippine-US alliance intact and to continue joint training and exercises as long as they were scaled down to small unit exercises that would focus on special forces, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations. The annual Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) joint exercise would continue but would be refocused from a war-fighting scenario to humanitarian, engineering and civil activities. Duterte, however, professed his dislike for the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) concluded by then-US President Barack Obama and Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III, hinting that he might eventually decide to scrap the accord that allows American forces access to Philippine air bases. Confronted by his own military, Duterte opted to bide his time to push his agenda to separate the Philippines from its only strategic ally.
The time has come
Two years before his six-year term ends in 2022, why has Duterte now moved to tone down if not dismantle the Philippines’ security relations with the US?
There are three reasons behind his decision. First, he believes that the military would be more willing to support him after he has increased the defense budget and raised personnel pay, funded a military modernization program to acquire new assets (attack and utility helicopters, tanks, supersonic jet fighters, and other hardware), and promoted senior officers loyal to him. The second reason is the ongoing US-China strategic competition, which is heating up, putting countries in the region, particularly those aligned with the US in a difficult position. Finally, despite his efforts, the armed services of the US and the Philippines have continued to frame their joint training in the South China Sea with China as the hypothetical opponent.
In the face of the US-China strategic competition, rightly or wrongly, Duterte is calculating that Beijing is now the power to reckon with in East Asia and that the Chinese have military superiority over the Americans in the region. He believes that, as leader of one of the closest allies in the region, he must play a critical role in allowing China to create a new strategic equilibrium in which it will gain strategic parity with the US. This means undermining Washington’s strategic advantage in its competition with China. By pivoting away from the US towards China, Duterte is showing the world that an explicitly anti-China alliance under the US leadership will fail and that ASEAN countries, even American allies, can accept an illiberal Sino-centric regional order.
Despite his 2016 understanding with the Philippine military that the alliance would focus on counter-insurgency and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the 2017 siege of Marawi City in the southern island of Mindanao by Islamic militants, which revealed the Philippine military’s glaring weakness in both conventional and unconventional warfare, gave Washington the opportunity to provide essential hardware to the Philippine military and continue joint exercises in the South China Sea aimed at countering China.
In January, few days before he threatened to abrogate the VFA, Duterte said in an interview that the Philippines would get crushed in any clash with China in the South China Sea and that he is worried that American forces would take advantage of such a situation and that a conflict could spiral out of control. He openly expressed his fears of an intervention by the US that might push any military encounter in an unforeseen potentially disastrous direction. In his analysis, the Philippine-US alliance is neither a stabilizing factor in the South China Sea dispute nor deterrence against aggression. Rather, he views it as a fuse that could ignite a major conflict in East Asia. It is notable that Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin warned that the abrogation of the VFA would render the US-Philippine1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the 2014 EDCA useless.
By sending notice of termination of the VFA to Washington on February 12, Duterte has effectively reduced these agreements to nothing more than dust-gathering historical documents. Duterte might well be poised unilaterally to abrogate the MDT and the EDCA. According to Panelo, his spokesman, if he were to take such action, it would be “consistent with his stand” and that the Philippines “have to stand on our own, … we don’t need other countries.” There is no doubt that Duterte crossing a national-security Rubicon. The big question is whether or not his soldiers and his people will follow him.
This article is an expanded and updated version of commentary by the author that was published on February 11, 2020, on the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, DC.
De Castro, Renato Cruz. (October 31, 2019) “Blowing Hot and Cold Over the South China Sea”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Hass Ryan; and Rapp-Hooper Mira. (February 6, 2019) “Responsible competition and the future of US-China relations: Seven critical questions for strategy”, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.
Mukherjee, Rohan. (February 20, 2020) "Rethinking US Alliances and Partnerships as Insurance Contracts", AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Panda, Ankit; and Parameswaran, Prashanth. (February 13, 2020) “The Philippines Moves to End US Visiting Forces Agreement: What Happens Next?”, The Diplomat, Washington, DC.
Renato Cruz De Castro
De La Salle University (DLSU)