US and Philippine troops arm and arm in a joint military exercise. Photo: AFP

MANILA – In a major policy reversal with sweeping strategic implications, the Philippine government suspended on Tuesday its earlier decision to abrogate its decades-long Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.

“The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the President’s [Rodrigo Duterte] instruction,” tweeted Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin without elaborating on the reason for the reversal.

In a formal letter to the US Embassy in Manila, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs vaguely mentioned “political and other developments in the region” as the basis for a six-month suspension of the impending abrogation of the vital defense agreement.  

The suspension is extendable for another six months, meaning the VFA will likely remain in effect well into 2021, and with Duterte entering his final years in office, the agreement seems secure for the foreseeable future, analysts and observers say.

In a statement, the US Embassy welcomed the reversal and highlighted how “[o]ur long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines.”

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 the legal framework 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.

US and Philippine Marines at the formal opening of annual Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises at ex-US Subic naval base. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

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, and effectively neuter the two countries’ longstanding alliance.

Since his election in mid-2016, the China-leaning Duterte has threatened to sever security cooperation with the US. His threat to cancel the VFA came in angry response in January to travel bans imposed by the US on Filipino officials involved in alleged rights abuses, including in prosecuting his drug war.

Experts and insiders believe Duterte’s reversal was likely motivated by China’s rising maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, including in Philippine waters, as well as his government’s desperate need for sustained humanitarian assistance amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are reasons for the Philippines to be concerned. News reports suggest that China may soon move ahead with plan to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) across the South China Sea, including over islands, features and waters claimed by the Philippines.

For the past two decades, the VFA has been a linchpin of the Philippine-US alliance, facilitating large-scale entry of American troops for counter-terrorism and maritime security exercises, as well as billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance during major humanitarian crises.

The VFA allowed the Pentagon to deploy thousands of troops during the Haiyan super typhoon in 2013, which devastated much of the central Philippines, as well as US Special Forces and drones during the months-long siege of southern city of Marawi by Islamic State-backed militants in 2017.

During a high-profile Senate hearing earlier this year, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana underscored the centrality of the agreement to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations (HADR) since “the US forces are always there in times of calamities.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) talks to US President Donald Trump (R) before the 31st ASEAN Summit, Manila, November 13, 2017. – Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

Duterte initiated the agreement’s abrogation on February 11 this year. Because it is a bilateral agreement, the two sides had 180 days to finalize the agreement’s cancellation in order to provide enough room for adjustments to the Pentagon.

The decision was unpopular among many Filipinos, who have favored strong security cooperation with the US to counterbalance China. Even Duterte’s allies in the Senate joined with the opposition earlier this year to challenging his unilateral nixing of the agreement without legislative concurrence.

In early March, veteran senators led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III asked the Philippine Supreme Court to “issue an order” to “refer [Duterte’s] Notice of Withdrawal to the Senate of the Philippines for its concurrence.” That legal challenge is still pending.

But the ongoing pandemic and China’s rising aggressiveness have seemingly forced Duterte’s hands.

Despite his rhetorical hostility towards the West, including the US, and cozy diplomatic relations with Beijing, Duterte has often shown strategic maturity vis-à-vis the perilous geopolitical environment in the region.

He has also been well-attuned to the sentiments of the powerful Philippine defense establishment, which has lobbied for robust security cooperation with the US, especially in these times of unprecedented strategic uncertainty.

In recent months, the Philippines has shown a willingness to highlight Chinese strategic adventurism.

For example, top Filipino military officials revealed to the media in April that a Chinese warship pointed a laser gun at a Philippine frigate in the Spratlys in February, while Filipino diplomats stood in solidarity with Hanoi in early April by criticizing China’s sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels.

One of the Philippines’ leading concerns is China’s next move in the South China Sea, including the possible reclamation and militarization of the Manila-claimed Scarborough Shoal, as well as declaration of an ADIZ across the entire area.

China’s control of the shoal, situated within the Philippines’ EEZ is crucial for the ADIZ.  

“[In the past] Beijing has been hesitant to declare the ADIZ in the South China Sea due to a number of technical, political, and diplomatic considerations,” an anonymous source in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently told the South China Sea Morning Post newspaper.

“But the most practical problem is that the PLA has in the past not had the capability to scramble its fighter jets to expel intrusive foreign aircraft in the South China Sea, which is several times the size of the East China Sea, and the cost to support the ADIZ would be huge.”

But Beijing could soon make the move since it has consolidated its strategic position across a sprawling network of airstrips and military facilities in the Spratlys and Paracels, which could now credibly support and sustain an ADIZ declaration, strategic analysts say. 

“Recent satellite images show that the People’s Liberation Army has deployed KJ-500 airborne early-warning and control aircraft and KQ-200 anti-submarine patrol planes at Fiery Cross Reef,” Lu Li-Shih, a China military expert told regional media.

“Once the PLA’s fighter jets arrive they can join the early-warning and anti-submarine aircraft in conducting ADIZ patrol operations.”

Whether the US military is currently in a position to counter such a move is not immediately clear, considering certain of its aircraft carriers have been docked at home ports due to Covid-19 infections among personnel. But assured access to nearby Philippine bases, via the VFA, could tip the strategic balance enough to give Beijing second thoughts.