Philippines signals intent to end military agreement with U.S.

The Philippines notified the United States on Tuesday 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.

U.S. official says ending pact affects some 300 military engagements, including joint exercises

A Philippine marine troop takes up position during a mock beach assault exercise with U.S. forces in joint drills in Ternate, Cavite back in 2015. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

The Philippines notified the United States on Tuesday 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 (VFA) was received by the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. The termination would take effect after 180 days unless both sides agree to keep the pact.

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.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said Tuesday in Brussels that he only received notice of Duterte's order on Monday evening and had not yet fully digested the details.

Esper called it "unfortunate."

"I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction," he said.

Esper said that when he visited the Philippines last November he thought the relationship was on a strong footing.

Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. gestures during a senate hearing in Manila last week. Locsin warned that breaking the 1998 security accord with Washington would undermine Philippine security and foster aggression in the disputed South China Sea. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

The U.S. Embassy in Manila acknowledged receipt of the notice and said Washington "will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests."

"This is a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippines alliance," the embassy said in a statement. "Our two countries enjoy a warm relationship, deeply rooted in history. We remain committed to the friendship between our two peoples."

In a Senate hearing last week, Locsin warned that abrogating the 1998 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 — including criminal jurisdiction over erring American troops — instead of abrogating it. Philippine defence and military officials did not immediately issue any reaction to the government move.

'America is very rude'

Duterte threatened to terminate the security agreement after Washington reportedly cancelled the U.S. visa of a loyal ally, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who was linked to human rights violations when he first enforced the president's deadly anti-drug crackdown as the national police chief in 2016. Thousands of mostly poor suspects have been killed under the bloody campaign, which has alarmed 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.

Protests against the U.S. military presence in the Philippines have flared up occasionally, including in Manila in May 2018. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

Duterte said in a speech late Monday that U.S. 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 opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, whom he has accused of involvement in illegal drugs. She has dismissed the allegation as a fabricated charge meant to muzzle dissent.

"America is very rude. They are so rude," Duterte said.

Locsin outlined in the 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 VFA accord legally allows the entry of large numbers of American forces along with U.S. military ships and aircraft for joint training with Filipino troops. It specifies which country will have jurisdiction over American soldiers who may be accused of crimes while in the Philippines, a sensitive issue in the former American colony.

A separate defence pact subsequently signed by the allies in 2014, the Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement, allows the extended stay of U.S. forces and authorizes them to build and maintain barracks and warehouses and store defence 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 Defence Treaty "to a mere paper treaty as far as the U.S. is concerned."

Strategic sea presence

U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary 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 US 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 human trafficking, cyberattacks, illegal narcotics and terrorism, Locsin said, citing how U.S. military assistance helped Filipino forces quell a disastrous siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants in southern Marawi city in 2017.

U.S. military forces are seen aboard Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) in the South China Sea in a Philippines-U.S. amphibious landing exercise in 2016. The U.S. has maintained a presence to deter the disputed Chinese claims of sovereignty over the body of water. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

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 on such threats but his government's action on Tuesday is the most serious indication of his intent to set back military ties with the U.S.