Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD*
21 June 2020
When the Philippine government suspended the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), US Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed his utmost gratefulness to President Rodrigo R. Duterte. Esper gave his statement during his telephone conversation with his counterpart, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, on 12 June 2020.
An Independent Philippine Foreign Policy
The conversation between the two defense officials was very momentous as it occurred during the commemoration of the 122 years of Philippine independence from Spain. The timing of the telephone conversation between two defense leaders has delivered a strong message that the US, as an erstwhile colonial master, should respect the Philippine independence and that the Philippines, as a former US colony, deeply cherishes its hard-fought independence from colonial powers. The termination, and eventual suspension of the termination, of the VFA also conveys a strong message to the US that the Philippines can pursue an independent foreign policy.
The suspension of the VFA termination, on the other hand, is very timely as both countries celebrate the Filipino-American Friendship Day on 4 July 2020. This indicates that the Philippine government continues to value its security alliance with the US amidst Manila’s simultaneous effort to promote “comprehensive strategic cooperation” with China.
In Light of Political Developments in the Region
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced the suspension of the VFA termination based on a diplomatic note submitted to the US Embassy on 1 June 2020. The Diplomatic Note, with reference number 2020-2622, states:
- “In light of political and other developments in the region, the termination of the Agreement between the (Philippine and United States governments) regarding the treatment of United States Forces Visiting the Philippines contained in Note No. 20-0463 dated 11 February 2020 is hereby suspended.
- “The suspension shall start on even date and shall continue for six months which period is extendible by the Philippines for another six months, after which the tolling of the initial period in Note Verbale No. 20-0463 dated 11 February 2020 shall resume.”
What compels the Philippine government to suspend the VFA termination?
As the Diplomatic Note aptly states, it has something to do with “political and other developments in the region”. This “political and other developments in the region” may refer to the geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic arising from increased US-China tensions in the South China Sea (SCS).
Increased US-China Rivalry in the Time of the Pandemic
The global impacts of the COVID-19 should have encouraged US and China to cooperate in order to overcome the pandemic.
However, the pandemic has put the two major powers in a blame game situation that accuses each other of mishandling the pandemic and even finger pointing at each other for spreading the coronavirus fear mongering. Rather than jointly solving the problem for the benefit of the whole world, the pandemic sadly caused the US and China to engage unnecessarily in a bitter and even counter-productive smear campaign against each other’s reputation as global leaders.
Thus, the pandemic is seemingly creating a global divide for states to be either pro-China or pro-US in addressing the current global crisis. This perceived divide is creating the nasty illusion of emerging cold war between the US and China because of the worsening major power rivalry between them.
US-China Military Competition in the SCS
Increased US-China rivalry during the pandemic is clearly manifested in the SCS where the Philippines find itself in between two competing powers. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic wrecking havoc to the whole world, US-China competition in the SCS has recently intensified as both powers expand their sphere of military influence in a highly strategic maritime domain being viewed as one of the major flashpoints of armed conflicts in Asia.
Thus, the US is pleased with the suspension of the VFA termination as it can give the Pentagon renewed access to Philippine territories to resume its military activities that aim to promote President Donald Trump’s security strategy towards the Indo-Pacific.
The VFA termination being suspended for six months, with the possibility of being extended for another six months, can allow the US to implement its more than 100 planned military activities in the Philippines for 2020. These military activities are in the form of joint military exercises and capacity-building trainings in the following key areas: Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR), Counterterrorism Cooperation (CTC), and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA).
HADR and CTC
In this time of the pandemic where terrorist threats persist in the Philippines, HADR and CTC can offer the US and the Philippines mutual benefits to confront their common security concerns.
Effective HADR activities during the 2013 Typhon Haiyan in the Philippines gave the US a very strong track record of being a reliable Philippine ally. HADR activities to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines can provide the US another golden opportunities to prove its worth as a strong ally of the Filipino people.
Successful CTC activities during the 2017 Marawi Siege also gave the US another exemplary practice of being an effective security ally of the Philippines. Through the Pentagon’s Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P), the US provided the Philippines counterterrorism assistance and advice that became essential for the October 2017 liberation of Marawi against terrorist groups in the Philippines aligned with the Islamic State (IS). With the suspension of the VFA termination amidst the continuing threats from pro-IS groups operating largely in the Southern Philippines during the pandemic, the US can implement its planned CTC activities with the Philippines in 2020. The Philippine government needs these CTC activities as it pushes for its new anti-terrorism law.
Maritime Domain Awareness
The MDA is the most controversial and the most sensitive aspect of US military activities in the Philippines as it is associated with the SCS disputes.
Though the MDA has counterterrorism objectives, it allows American military access to Philippine waters to build the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to promote maritime security in two major problematic maritime domains: the Sulu Sea and the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The MDA can also cover the waters within the Philippine Benham Rise.
The Philippines and the US have greater security interests to implement MDA activities in the WPS because of China’s growing presence in the area, particularly in geographic features where China conducted massive land reclamation activities. During the pandemic, claimants have not stopped their usual military and paramilitary activities in the SCS. Vietnam, China, and Malaysia have even intensified their unilateral patrols in the SCS.
The Philippines also continued its routine patrols and rotation missions in the WPS, particularly in Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island where it recently inaugurated the construction of a docking port. Amidst the pandemic, the Philippines announced its long-delayed plan to start the rehabilitation of the runway in Pag-Asa Island.
The Philippines even facilitated the entry of American ships passing through the WPS in order to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS. With the suspension of VFA termination, the US can implement its planned MDA activities with the Philippines, particularly in WPS, where the US can cover in its FONOPs in remaining months of 2020.
Philippine-US Security Alliance: Business As Usual?
In other words, suspending the VFA termination has brought Philippine-American security alliance in business as usual. Despite some dramas created by the notification of VFA termination on 11 February 2020, its recent suspension has allowed the Philippines and the US to kiss and make-up to sustain their security alliance.
However, the stability of Philippine-American security alliance remains on uncertain ground under Duterte Administration as the Philippine government can still resume the VFA termination after the suspension period.
Playing the US Card
Apparently, the Philippine government is currently playing the US card because of China’s recent activities in the SCS. The indefinite postponement during the pandemic of the negotiation between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS is also creating renewed regional security uncertainties requiring an American presence to balance China. Thus, the Philippines can utilize its existing security alliance with the US in order to balance China’s growing presence in the SCS.
Playing the China Card
But being an ally of the US does not make the Philippines the enemy of China. The Philippines continues to value its centuries old friendship with China. Under Duterte Administration, the Philippines government is still interested to pursue “comprehensive strategic cooperation” with China.
In fact, the Philippines and China just commemorated on 9 June 2020 the 45 years of their diplomatic relations where both countries agreed to boost ties and to “embrace a better future” of their bilateral friendship and partnership. The Philippines still needs to be friendly with China to have another card to play when dealing with its only security ally, the US.
Friendly to All, Enemy to None
The Philippine government’s decision to suspend the VFA termination while remaining friendly with China is an exercise of Duterte’s independent foreign policy. It is a foreign policy that is anchored on the pragmatic principle of being “friendly to all and enemy to none”. This principle serves only one purpose: the effective advancement of Philippine national security interests amidst regional security uncertainties in the time of the pandemic.
*The author is a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College. He has a PhD in International Relations at Jinan University, Guangzhou China and a BA and MA in Political Science at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS).
This analysis also appeared in Eurasia Review.
Photo Credit: The USS Barry conducts operations in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, April 28, 2020. U.S. Navy handout photo by Samuel Hardgrove as used in Eurasia Review.