Philippine leader maintains the pact that allows US war exercises

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After President Rodrigo Duterte reversed his decision to end a key defense agreement, the Philippines will continue large-scale combat drills with the United States. This move may be an attempt to antagonize an ever more belligerent China.

Friday’s announcement by Duterte was made public by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and his American counterpart Lloyd Austin at a joint news conference in Manila. This was a step back for the Philippine leader who made a stunning pledge early in his term to separate himself from Washington in an attempt to repair strained ties with China after years of territorial rifts in South China Sea.

Lorenzana informed reporters that the president had decided to recall the termination letter for VFA and retract it. Lorenzana spoke after an hour-long meeting Austin. Lorenzana was referring to the Visiting Forces Agreement. “There is no termination notice pending, and we are back on the right track.”

Austin thanked Duterte and said that the decision would strengthen the 70-year-old treaty alliance between the two countries.

Austin stated that “Our countries are facing a variety of challenges, including the climate crises and the pandemic. As we do, a strong and resilient US-Philippine partnership will remain vital for the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.” Austin stated, “A fully restored VFA would help us all achieve this goal.”

The end of the pact would have been devastating for America’s oldest Asian alliance. Washington is now negotiating with Beijing over a variety of issues including trade and human rights, as well as China’s conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing claims the entire area.

The U.S. military presence is seen in the region as a counterbalance for China. China has used force to claim vast areas of the South China Sea disputed by it. This includes the construction of artificial islands with military installations and airstrips. China continues to ignore and defy an international arbitration ruling in 2016 that invalidated its historical basis.

For decades, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and three other countries have been at odds over the territorial dispute. The U.S. has not claimed the busy waterway, and has attacked Navy warships near Chinese-claimed islands in an attempt to challenge Beijing.

Beijing warned Washington to avoid what it calls a purely Asian dispute.

Austin spoke in Singapore Tuesday to say that Beijing’s claim on the South China Sea was “without basis in international law”; he also stated that the U.S. is committed to fulfilling its defense treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines.

Duterte informed the U.S. government last February that the Philippines wanted to end the 1998 agreement. This allows large numbers American forces to train with Philippine troops in combat and establishes legal terms for their temporary stay.

Duterte repeatedly delayed the decision. The pact would have been effective after 180 days. While the pact was in process, the U.S. military and the Philippine military continued to plan for disaster-response and combat exercises. However, larger drills were cancelled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. and Philippine forces engage in about 300 activities each year, including the Balikatan, or shoulder-to-shoulder, exercises, which involve thousands of troops in land, sea and air drills that often included live fire. Chinese protests were triggered by their being held at the periphery to the sea Beijing claims it owns.

The Balikatan exercises were resumed in April, but they were significantly reduced due to ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns and outbreaks.

According to a Philippine military official, the U.S. continues to provide intelligence, satellite and aircraft surveillance photos showing Chinese activities in South China Sea despite Duterte’s threat to end the VFA. According to the military official, the U.S. images helped the Philippines recognize encroachments and file diplomatic protests.

Lorenzana claimed that he did not know the cause of Duterte’s sudden change of heart. In December, the brash-talking president of Southeast Asia, who is under immense pressure to contain the worst outbreaks in the region, said he would abrogate the VFA if the U.S. didn’t provide at least 20 millions doses of COVID-19 vaccination.

Duterte stated, “No vaccine, No Stay Here,” and a Filipino senator commented that Duterte “may have given an impression that the Philippines are a nation full of extortionists.”

Through the COVAX global vaccination-sharing program, the Philippines received at least 3.2 millions doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. The Philippines has also been assured more American aid. President Joe Biden stated that vaccines from America were being given to countries in need to save lives, and did not include any pressure to make concessions.