May 20, 2021, 12:41 p.m.
US and Filipino negotiators concluded talks on the deal, which will underpin the presence of US forces in the Philippines, foreign policy officials said. This could calm the Biden government’s strained relationship with a key regional ally as competition with China intensifies.
The text of the agreement, which was finalized at the working level, is now sitting on the desk of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, people familiar with the talks said. The so-called Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed for the first time in 1998, gives the United States responsibility for its armed forces in the country and regulates the entry and exit of US troops. Loss of the agreement would remove the legal protections that allow US forces to use it as a basis for responding to potential conflict or crisis. Duterte abruptly terminated the deal last year and has since charged the US with six-month extensions.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the deal was another six-month extension that would allow negotiators to breathe easier in the short term, or a new deal that would secure the presence of US forces for a much longer period of time . The Trump administration had previously managed to prevent Duterte from starting the countdown to the repeal of the VFA, one of two major defense deals securing the oldest U.S. alliance in Asia. It came after the Philippine Mercury Leader first canceled the deal last year after US officials refused a visa to a close political ally of Duterte.
The US State Department previously informed Congress that if talks were unsuccessful, US forces would have to be evacuated immediately before the August deadline. Duterte said earlier this week that he intends to “very carefully” examine the possibility of the deal‘s Renegotiation. But even if negotiations are out of the way – proof of the relationshipResilience at the working level – Experts said the underlying dynamic between US President Joe Biden and Duterte remains fragile.
“Right now everything is in stasis because you can’t plan an alliance every six months,” said Gregory Poling, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia and Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. a think tank in Washington. “How can you plan an alliance strategy in the Philippines when you can wake up tomorrow and decide that the alliance is meaningless?”
It’s an alliance that has looked very different for the past 30 years. The largest U.S. Navy presence off the U.S. coast was once in Subic Bay in the Philippines before the base closed in 1992. Clark Air Base north of Manila was also a critical starting point for the US armed forces during the Vietnam War.
Although the Philippines was removed from a list of U.S. allies in Biden’s preliminary national security strategy released in March, U.S. state and Department of Defense officials insist they are still working to build the relationship.
“We will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that addresses common security challenges and respects human rights,” said Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman. “Our respective officials have an open dialogue that is essential to maintaining the strength of an alliance.”
A State Department spokesman did not go directly into progress on the talks, but said officials from the US and the Philippines had been consulted regularly over the past few months. “The US-Philippine alliance is vital to our two countries‘ Security, ”said the spokesman. The Philippine Embassy in the United States did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The negotiations settle years of tension between the United States and the Philippines under Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to turn from the United States to China. On his first visit to Beijing in 2016, Duterte said it was “time to say goodbye to Washington.” And Duterte has got used to China in a different way: for years, his government refused to publicly recognize the decision of a major international tribunal favorable to the Philippines that denied China’s claims to the South China Sea. Although Duterte still hopes to maintain a closer relationship with Beijing, the ground has quickly shifted beneath his feet, experts say. Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea sparked a U-turn in Manila, and the notoriously undiplomatic Duterte began to anger Beijing last year. He signaled his tough stance on China during his 2020 speech to the United Nations General Assembly when he turned directly to the 2016 court ruling, saying the Philippines would “strongly oppose attempts to undermine it.”
In another sign of a shift in loyalty, Duterte’s foreign minister hit Beijing in an explosive Twitter post earlier this month as Chinese coast guards approached the Scarborough Shoals, a disputed area claimed by both the Philippines and China has been. Filipino Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. called China an “ugly fool” and called it “damn it”. He later apologized for the tweet.
The launch of Chinese fishing vessels near Whitsun in the Spratly Islands earlier this year within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone has also underscored the need for US aid. And it’s not clear when the issue will be dealt with in person: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was due to leave for the Shangri-La Dialogue early next month, but the meeting was canceled on Thursday. Officials have indicated to Austin that they are hoping to discuss ways to cool simmering tensions in the region with Chinese colleagues.
“Given that China seems to be facing more pressure due to sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, it makes sense for the Philippines not to roll back its alliance with the US,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at The RAND Corporation Focused on the Indo-Pacific. “If you get rid of the VFA, you can no longer easily let the US military in and out of the Philippines.”
Still, US attempts to keep the relationship steady through the turmoil of the Duterte administration may do little to please human rights monitors. Duterte sparked hacker attacks by cracking down on drugs and silencing critics in the media. In February, Sens. Edward Markey, Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy Duterte called out after a prominent Filipino human rights lawyer and politician arrested by the government was acquitted on what appeared to be politically motivated allegations. “President Duterte has tried to silence his critics and the independent press through false and politically motivated allegations, but his contempt for human rights, freedom of speech and democracy is clear to the world,” the legislature wrote.
Although negotiators have made progress in keeping U.S. forces in the country, experts don’t believe the relationship will be safe while Duterte is around. That lets officials look ahead to next year’s elections in the Philippines, when Duterte will step down.
“You keep feeling like you are hanging on your fingernails with Duterte,” Poling said. “You won’t feel secure in your longevity until July 1st next year, when Duterte is officially out of office.”