US and Philippine troops during a recent joint exercise. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s best efforts to reduce strategic dependence on the United States, China’s moves in the South China Sea have forced the populist leader to re-embrace his nation’s longtime treaty ally.

If anything, China’s strategic opportunism in adjacent waters, launched coincident with the death, destruction and distraction caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, has triggered a reboot in the Philippine-US alliance. That’s been seen most clearly in Duterte’s recent decision to maintain a key pact he had previously cancelled in a fit of diplomatic pique.

Soon after the decision to suspend its earlier announced termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a pact that provides the legal framework for US military activities in the Philippines, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper held a conciliatory conversation with his Filipino counterpart Delfin Lorenzana.

During a phone conversation on June 12, marking the Philippines’ National Independence Day, the American defense chief thanked the Philippines for its decision and vowed America’s continued support and assistance to regional allies including “developments on vaccines and therapeutics” related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Secretary Esper mentioned that developments on vaccines and therapeutics in the US are making very good progress, and expressed their willingness to share them with US allies and partners once available,” announced the Philippine Department of National Defense in a statement.

The cordial exchange between the two top defense officials marks a major turnabout in bilateral relations. Angered by US travel restrictions against his key allies, Duterte in February initiated the abrogation of the VFA, though he notably fell short of canceling the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) altogether.

At the time, Esper was visibly stunned by the decision to abrogate what has been a cornerstone of large-scale joint military exercises and multifaceted cooperation throughout the post-Cold War period.

“I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction…as we both bilaterally, with the Philippines, and collectively, with a number of other partners and allies in the region, are trying to say to the Chinese you must obey the international rules of order,” Esper said in February upon receiving notice of the VFA’s termination.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a joint press conference with his Philippines counterpart at the Department of Defense in Manila on November 19, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

“You must obey, you know, abide by international norms,” warned Esper, underscoring the risk of an emboldened China amid deteriorating Philippine-US security cooperation.

Admiral Philip Davidson, the US Indo-Pacific Command chief, warned around the same time that the Pentagon’s ability to help the Philippines counterterrorism efforts in Mindanao, and train and operate with Filipino armed forces would be “challenged” by the VFA’s abrogation.

In March, a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) warned “while the termination of the VFA would not abrogate the MDT, it would complicate the Department of Defense’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the treaty… [this] raises uncertainties about the future of US-Philippine military cooperation, an essential part of the US security posture” in Asia.

“The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and the termination of the VFA would not change that status…However, broad aspects of US-Philippine cooperation, including military exercises and US access to Philippine military facilities, could be made difficult or impossible without the legal protection of the VFA,” the CRS report added.

Around that time, China made a series of assertive moves in the South China Sea, including in Philippine claimed waters, that bolstered perceptions Beijing intends to leverage the Covid-19 crisis to consolidate its position in the contested maritime area.

After resisting internal pressure to reconsider his executive decision, not least a Senate challenge of its legality at the country’s highest court, Duterte decided to effectively restore the VFA.

Earlier this month, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced a suspension in the 180-day abrogation process which was supposed to take effect in August “upon the president’s [Duterte’s] instruction.”

The country’s top envoy later explained the reversal decision as a response to “the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in a time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world.”

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense towards enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” he added.

US and Philippine Marines at annual Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard which docked at the former US naval base of Subic, Philippines. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

Philippine Ambassador in Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez, however, was blunter about the reason behind the policy flip-flop. He said that China’s creeping intrusion into Philippine waters and increasingly aggressive actions against smaller claimant states in the South China Sea played a crucial role in Duterte’s turnabout.

“Obviously, the situation as far as the pandemic is concerned is a major concern as far as the Visiting Forces Agreement. As a matter of fact, many of the [joint] Balikatan exercises had to be moved or cannot be obviously be implemented because of the pandemic so that’s one,” said Romualdez.

“The political reason, obviously, is there’s quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea, very clearly we see that and so because of security issues and many things that are happening in the world, both I think our governments have seen that it would be prudent for us to just simply suspend first any implementation of the termination,” he added.

The Philippines’ chief envoy to Washington reiterated the importance of the VFA since it is “obviously a vehicle for which we will be able to implement many of these [joint military] exercises” and that “we need to have some form of agreement to be able to implement our defense treaty with the US.”

That assurance may be emboldening Philippine defense officials vis-à-vis China. On June 9, Philippine defense chief Lorenzana made a high-profile visit to the Spratly group of islands, the highest-ranking official to visit the disputed land features in recent years.

He traveled to inaugurate a beaching ramp on the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island, which will facilitate maintenance and upgrades across eight Philippine-occupied land features in the area.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures during a Reuters interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTX30A9V
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, February 9, 2017. Photo: AFP

“The purpose of this [maintenance and upgrade activities] is just to develop this area into a viable community,” Philippine defense chief Lorenzana told reporters during his visit, explaining that the $5.3 million beach ramp (268 million pesos) is the beginning of a four-phase project to build a “Basing Support System” for soldiers and civilians stationed in the area.

The overall project is expected to cost around $30 million (1.6 billion pesos), as the Philippines seeks to fortify its facilities in the area for the first time since the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.

The island hosts a 1,300-meter airstrip at the Rancudo Airfield which analysts suggest could be pivotal in any South China Sea conflict. The Philippine Navy has previously proposed to build a naval base on the island, including to provide a training site for the Philippine Navy’s elite Special Warfare Group, or Navy Seals.

The recent construction on Thitu could set the stage for a confrontation with China. Since late 2018, an armada of Chinese militia forces has surrounded Philippine-occupied islands in the area, including Thitu, hindering the Philippines’ ability to sustain and upgrade its operations in the Spratlys.

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According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a think tank, an average of 18 Chinese paramilitary vessels surrounded Thitu island between December 2, 2018 and March 2, 2020.

“These counts indicate the minimum number of Chinese ships present on a given day. Many vessels likely went uncounted because they were under cloud cover or outside the frame of the images,” the AMTI explained in a report based on satellite imagery.

“Because [the beaching ramp] is now operational, we can go full blast already,” Lorenzana added, reassuring the Philippine public following repeated delays in island maintenance and upgrade projects first announced during an earlier visit by top Philippine defense officials in 2017.