In late January, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States despite some efforts of the Secretaries of Defense and Foreign Affairs to prevent it.
The agreement provides the legal framework for the presence of US troops in the Philippines for military exercises and humanitarian relief operations. Without it, the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States loses its teeth.
The cancellation of the VFA comes in response to the denial of the former police chief and now senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa’s US visa. It may come as a shock to some but it is not a surprise to those familiar with Duterte’s style of leadership.
The visa rejection on the grounds that Sen. De la Rosa was the implementer of the government’s all-out war against drugs, Duterte sees the move as a form of interference in domestic affairs. It adds to the personal resentment Duterte already feels towards the US having been rejected for a US visa in the past. He has never paid a visit to the US despite invitations by President Trump and has personally vowed never to visit (read more).
The move has also triggered a debate as to just how far Duterte can go in matters of international affairs. While is within the president’s power to chart the course of the country’s foreign policy, the Senate has a say when it comes to the ratification and abrogation of treaties and the body has adopted a resolution earlier this week asking the president to reconsider with allies of the administration abstaining (read more) and some moving to file a petition with the Supreme Court on the matter (read more).
The VFA was signed in 1998 partly in response to the Chinese occupying Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s. Following the end of the Cold War, the Philippine senate voting to bring to an end the presence of US troops in Subic Bay and Beijing took advantage of its southern neighbor’s misstep.
Ending the VFA would be breaking a spoke in the wheel of strategic alliances and treaties between the US and her allies in the Asia-Pacific – a system that has been instrumental in maintaining peace and security in the region. It may embolden China to take further unilateral and confrontational action in the South China Sea (read more).
The termination will also have an immediate impact on the more than 300 scheduled military exercises and could potentially affect the professionalism of the Philippine Armed Forces as military education and training of Philippine officers are part of the treaty (read more).
Ultimately, foreign policy is a complex matter with long-term consequences for the nation and the wider region. For relationships with foreign leaders to be swayed by personal vendettas and international agreements to be torn apart in a tit-for-tat would not be in the national interest.
In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby from the British comedy Yes, Prime Minister, “diplomacy is about surviving until the next century – politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon”. And for the Philippines, the biggest threat to its security and international standing may not be an aggressive external power but myopic politics from within.