Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has renewed a longstanding threat to sever security cooperation with the United States, an angry response to recent travel bans imposed on Filipino officials involved in alleged rights abuses.
The firebrand Filipino leader has also reportedly turned down US President Donald Trump’s invitation to attend a special US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting to be held in Las Vegas later this year.
If Duterte follows through on his threat, it would mark a significant diplomatic and strategic departure for the long-time mutual defense treaty allies, and give China a new advantage in the contested South China Sea.
As the US and other Western nations ramp up sanctions against perpetrators of human rights violations in the Philippines, including those behind a lethal drug war, Duterte seems increasingly worried about his and his allies prospects as he enters the twilight of his six-year tenure.
By dangling America’s future access to strategic Philippine bases, crucial outposts in the contest for influence in the South China Sea, the Filipino leader likely hopes to deter any escalation of targeted Western sanctions against his inner circle and potentially himself in the months and years ahead.
At the same time, he has doubled down on his strategic pivot to Russia and China, which, according to the Filipino president, “respect the sovereignty of the [the Philippines]”, something that he says has been “totally lacking” by America and the West.
Since his ascent to the presidency, Duterte has been at loggerheads with the US and Western partners over human rights concerns. His scorched-earth drug war, which has reportedly claimed the lives of thousands of drug suspects, has soured relations with traditional allies.
The Trump administration initially sought to de-emphasize disagreements in favor of tighter strategic cooperation, especially in light of shared concerns over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
But tensions came to head last year when a bipartisan effort to punish human rights violators in the Philippines was approved by the US government.
In recent days, a number of top Philippine officials have openly expressed their concerns over facing travel bans and other punitive measures for their alleged involvement in alleged abuses.
The most prominent among them is Senator Bato Dela Rosa, a former Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief who oversaw the most brutal phase of Duterte’s drug war.
“I was told [by the US Embassy] to just apply again if I want, because the present visa was cancelled,” Dela Rosa, who is now a senator, confirmed on January 22 when asked about reports his US diplomatic visa was revoked.
Shortly thereafter, Duterte upped the diplomatic ante by threatening in retaliation to abrogate the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
The VFA, negotiated soon after the closure of American military bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s, provides the legal framework for US soldiers to enter the Philippines.
It also provides the operating software for the Philippine-US defense alliance, enshrined in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which at any given time sees US troops stationed in the country on a rotating basis, including in terrorism-prone southern regions.
“Now they won’t let Bato (dela Rosa) go to America. I am warning you…if you don’t do the correction there. One, I will terminate the bases, Visiting Forces Agreement. I will end that son of a bitch,” Duterte thundered in remarks reported in local media.
Without the VFA, the US would not be able to sustain its significant military presence in the Philippines, a turn that would have major ramifications for America’s strategic position in the Western Pacific, particularly vis-à-vis China.
It would also impact on joint military activities and exercises, of which nearly 300 were held last year.
Ratified by the Philippine Senate in the late 1990s, some suggest that the upper house would have to approve Duterte’s scrapping of the VFA. However, top government officials maintain that Duterte can unilaterally abrogate the agreement without legislative approval.
“The termination of the VFA may be unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, and it is well within the right of the Philippine government to do so if it determines that the agreement no longer redounds to our national interest,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters on January 24.
“All that is required is that a notice of termination be served to the US government. The termination shall take effect 180 days after the date of the notice.”
The defense secretary, known for his independent views and longstanding ties with the US, placed Duterte’s latest threat within the broader context of perceived persistent US interference in Philippine domestic affairs.
“I can understand why [Duterte] is peeved by the cancellation of Senator Bato’s visa because of alleged extrajudicial killings in connection with the drug war,” Lorenzana told this writer on January 24. “It is a direct affront to [Duterte] being the architect of the drug war that he started upon his assumption of office.”
“[Let’s not forget] Duterte ordered Bato, then the newly installed PNP Chief, to launch the drug war and enjoined the entire PNP to do their duties and pledged he would back them up. That he would take responsibility for their official actions,” Lorenzana said. “That he would go to prison for them. He is just being true to his promise,” the defense chief added.
The reaction among Filipino senators, however, has been mixed. Key Duterte allies such as Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, who chairs the upper house’s foreign relations committee, said that the president can nix the VFA “with or without a reason.”
“That agreement (should) always be subject to review…He can even say that ‘times have changed and it is no longer needed by the country,’” he added.
More independent-leaning senators such as Panfilo Lacson have referred to Duterte’s threat as “unfortunate and unnecessary” since “[t]he VFA is a bilateral agreement between the [Philippines] and the US that went through some careful and diplomatic discussion” he wrote on Twitter.
Civil society groups have been equally critical. Even progressive leaders such as Renato Reyes of the left-leaning Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), a longtime critic of America’s military presence in the Philippines, warned against trivialization of the matter for personal reasons.
“The termination of the VFA is a serious matter. We have fought for it since 1999. It is not a mere bargaining chip to get Bato back his US visa,” Reyes said. “The termination of the VFA is needed because it is an affront to our national sovereignty. Don’t trivialize this issue.”
Though the Presidential Palace (Malacanang) has announced that the VFA termination process is underway, few believe that it will actually be done any time soon. US sanctions against top Duterte administration officials, however, are expected to intensify.
The travel ban imposed on Bato and apparently other top Filipino police officials is justified under the US’s Magnitsky Act (2012) as well as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which calls on the US government to promote “human rights and respect for democratic values in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Apart from travel ban, the US and other allied countries that subscribe to the global Magnitsky mechanism may impose asset freezes and other forms of financial sanctions against top Filipino officials involved in human rights violations.
Duterte’s threat could thus be seen as a calculated maneuver to deter further sanctions against his inner circle, including against his long-time assistant and current senator, Bong Go, if not himself after his single term expires in 2022.
The Filipino president has sought to portray his latest threat to abrogate the VFA as both a nationalistic assertion of sovereignty and a diplomatic bid to prevent regional conflict, namely between the US and China.
He has consistently blamed America’s military presence on Philippine soil as a major source of tensions, while consistently overlooking China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea.
“It would be a reckless move if I send out just like Vietnam small vessels [into the South China Sea] only to get a bloody nose [from China] at the end of the day,” Duterte said on January 25 amid criticism of his threat to nix the VFA.
“[The US] might just want to take advantage and make a pretext that they are defending the Philippines, and it will go beyond our control.”