US and Philippine Marines carry their respective colors at the formal opening of the annual Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard which docked at the former US naval base of Subic on October 8, 2012. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

MANILA – US-Philippine bilateral relations, already strained after Manila’s recent abrogation of a key defense pact, are careening towards a full-blown crisis as Washington readies more rights related measures targeting top Filipino officials, including possibly President Rodrigo Duterte.  

Earlier this month Duterte unilaterally nixed the country’s decades-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, a defense deal that provided a legal framework for the entry and temporary stationing of American troops on Philippine soil.

The VFA also provides the legal basis for the two long-time allies to conduct annual joint military activities and war games that often send a muscular message to China, including joint exercises involving mock island invasions in the South China Sea.

Duterte moved to scrap the VFA after the US issued travel bans on certain of Duterte’s top allies in punitive response to their involvement in his lethal drug war. Rights groups estimate thousands have been gunned down in extrajudicial fashion during the campaign.

The US government has received a finalized list of top Filipino officials, including reportedly top allies of Duterte, who could soon face travel bans and other sanctions for their alleged roles in gross human rights violations.

The list was submitted by leading opposition Senator and ex-Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, who is currently being detained on what many view as trumped up drug charges.

She was among the campaign’s most vocal critics before her jailing and has from prison encouraged the US and other major Western nations to impose sanctions against her “persecutors.”

Philippine Senator Leila De Lima (C), a top critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, is escorted by police after her arrest at the Senate in Manila on February 24, 2017. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP

Though the US is yet to reveal the complete list, sources familiar with the situation say it likely includes Duterte.

The US 2020 Appropriations Act contains provisions that call on the State Department and other relevant state agencies to impose sanctions on officials and pro-government propagandists involved in the persecution of the jailed Philippine senator.

Under the Global Magnitsky Act, the US government is mandated to impose sanctions and travel bans against top officials involved in gross violations of human rights worldwide.

There are ongoing efforts by the Philippine Senate and senior officials to rescue the VFA on the legal grounds Duterte’s unilateral move is unconstitutional because it overrides the Senate’s mandate to review and ratify treaties and key defense agreements.

The issue has been lodged with the Supreme Court, raising certain hopes the abrogation could be overturned before its 180-day expiration period. Others are less sanguine in light of the court’s otherwise slow deliberations.

The Supreme Court has yet to decide on a previous petition put forward by a minority of senators to nullify Duterte’s unilateral withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) at a time it is examining allegations of crimes against humanity by his government.

Opponents of the VFA’s abrogation have called instead for a thorough and formal review of the defense agreement before making a final decision on whether to scrap it.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and US President Donald Trump (R) at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

The move has been supported by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Duterte ally Senator Richard Gordon, and leading independent statesman Senator Panfilo Lacson, who has vociferously criticized the scrapping of the VFA.

“This will be a bipartisan move to assert the Senate’s role in foreign policy. While the President is the chief architect of our foreign policy, the constitution is clear that such a very critical role is shared with Congress, particularly the Senate,” said opposition Senate leader Franklin Drilon.

“The Supreme Court should rule on this issue once and for all. We cannot continue putting the fate of critical treaties such as the VFA…in the hands of one man,” the veteran senator added.

Drilon has warned of “far-reaching consequences” for Philippine national security if the nation loses its robust military cooperation with the US.

China already appears to sense weakness.

Recent satellite imagery shows that China has “maintained a constant maritime militia and [coast guard] deployment around Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island) for 424 days and counting,” according to Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Greg Poling.

There are also concerns about China moving ahead with reclaiming and militarizing the nearby Scarborough Shoal, a feature China occupied after a months-long standoff with the Philippines in 2012.

The prospect of China consolidating its control over the feature that has haunted the Philippines’ top brass since at least 2017.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana delivers a speech during a closing ceremony of an annual joint US-Philippines military exercise, Manila, May 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

“There was a plan by the Chinese in June (2017) to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. In fact, we received reports from the Americans that there were barges loaded with soil and construction materials going to Scarborough but I think the Americans told the Chinese, ‘Don’t do it.’,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the time.

“For some reason, the Chinese stopped,” the defense chief said.

But with US-Philippine security cooperation now on the chopping block, and diplomatic ties expected to hit a new nadir with US travel bans on top Philippine officials, China will face less resistance to its ambitions in the South China Sea.