Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (in video screen) salutes along with soldiers during the 121st founding anniversary of Philippine army at the army headquarters in Manila on March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been accused of extortion by leading figures in his own government after telling the United States it will have to pay to extend a crucial defense deal with Manila.

During a visit to Philippine troops in Clark, Pampanga, the former site of a major American airbase, Beijing-friendly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte openly threatened would scrap a major bilateral defense deal with the US. 

“You have to pay,” warned the Filipino president only months before the potential abrogation of the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which provides the legal framework for the large-scale entry of American troops for annual joint exercises in the Philippines. 

Leading figures from across the political aisle slammed the Filipino president’s remarks as an “embarrassing” act of “extortion,” with the Philippine Senate openly challenging Duterte’s authority to unilaterally scrap the defense agreement.

Even Duterte’s top cabinet members have openly advocated for the restoration of the deal under the new US leadership led by Joe Biden. 

As a former American colony and one of its oldest allies, the Philippines is indispensable to the Biden administration’s strategy in Asia, which is based on the twin pillars of proactive multilateralism and expanded cooperation with allies and partners in light of an increasingly assertive China. 

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which has been the bedrock of bilateral military cooperation since the end of World War II. 

The Philippines, however, has proved to be a prickly ally under Duterte, who has reduced the country’s century-old alliance with the US into a transactional relationship while actively courting support from Beijing and Moscow in recent years. 

Philippine soldiers arrive for security at Guiuan Airport which was operating as a forward airbase for relief supplies after Typhoon Haiyan hit the east coast of the Philippines on November 21, 2013. Photo: AFP/Mark Ralston

Vital Philippine bases

Amid festering disputes over human rights issues, with the US Congress imposing targeted sanctions against top Philippine officials involved in Duterte’s scorched-earth “drug war,” the Filipino president unilaterally abrogated the VFA last year. 

But the decision was twice suspended due to internal pushback by his top lieutenants and in anticipation of more fruitful negotiations with a new US president. The Biden administration has to negotiate the final status of the defense deal before the end of May or it lose access to vital Philippine bases, which are close to the hotly contested South China Sea. 

The VFA has also facilitated robust bilateral cooperation in the realm of counterterrorism, most dramatically during the 2017 Marawi siege by Islamic State-affiliated militants, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, including during the 2013 Haiyan superstorm. 

Reminding US-trained Philippine troops that he is “a friend of the United States” during his speech last week, Duterte nonetheless painted the US as an unreliable ally. 

“Their top brass will come; this group will promise you… Once they take off, they forget about it and nobody’s following [up] until you keep on reminding them,” the Filipino president said, presenting himself as a consummate pragmatist who seeks good relations with all major powers. 

 “We are avoiding any confrontation – a confrontation that would lead to something which we can hardly afford, at least not at this time,” he added. 

Signaling a potentially fraught relationship with the new Democratic president, Duterte warned, “from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement done? You have to pay. It’s a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free.”

According to Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, a staunch advocate of the Philippine-US alliance, proper negotiations with the Biden administration will start later this month. 

“The suspension [of the abrogation of VFA] was intended that we should continue working and I am narrowing down the issues and soon we will meet … and iron out whatever differences we have,” said the Filipino diplomat on Monday. 

Philippine marines take position next to US marines’ Amphibious Assault Vehicles during an amphibious landing exercise at the beach of the Philippine navy training center facing the South China sea in San Antonio town, Zambales province, north of Manila on October 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Military aid

In his regular column, veteran journalist and current Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez, another staunch advocate of the Philippine-US alliance, indicated that Manila would demand substantial military aid in exchange for the full restoration of the defense deal. 

Lamenting that “the Philippines is being treated like a child who is promised something only to be left hanging later,” the Philippine ambassador highlighted ongoing “frank discussion regarding our bilateral relations” with officials from the Pentagon and the US State Department in recent days. 

“For the Philippines to become a reliable ally, its armed forces must be equipped with new aircraft and other hard assets that would enhance its defense capabilities and enable it to contribute to the partnership,” wrote Romualdez, bemoaning how “the materiel support our country has been getting were cast-offs and hand-me-downs” from the Pentagon over the decades. 

Prominent senators such as Panfilo Lacson, who chairs the Senate Committee on National Defense, was quick to lambast what many see as open acts of extortion by the Duterte administration.  

“The President may have used strong words to send his message across to the US. But certainly, there is a more civil and statesmanlike manner to ask for compensation from a longtime ally using the usual diplomatic channels and still get the same desired results,” Lacson said in a statement. 

Several senators, including Lacson, have reminded Duterte that the Senate has a constitutional say on the fate of the VFA, which was ratified by the Philippine legislature in the late-1990s. 

“Mr President, read the 1987 Constitution. A senator has something to do with international agreements,” Lacson said in his social media post. 

Last year, leading senators including Senate President Vicente Sotto III pressed ahead with directly challenging Duterte’s initial abrogation of the VFA at the Philippine Supreme Court. The unprecedented move may have played a role in Duterte’s subsequent decision to suspend his earlier decision. 

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo described Duterte’s remarks as ’embarrassing.’ Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

‘It’s embarrassing’

On her part, Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, also criticized Duterte’s remarks as “embarrassing” and “no way to treat a longtime ally.”

“It’s embarrassing. It’s like we are extorting them. For me, when we say we do not want to renew the VFA, then let’s lay down the reasons. Let us show them why it will not be good for us. Money should not be the consideration,” she added.

Duterte has repeatedly claimed, as the commander in chief, that he has the final say on the fate of the Philippine-US alliance.

“It is not money I am asking for … we should be provided with arms and armaments that could place us at equal footing with countries at war with us,” Duterte said in a late night-televised address.

But it’s not clear whether he will also seek personal guarantees against human rights-related sanctions as he enters his twilight year in office in addition to more robust US military aid under the Biden administration. 

Nor has the Biden administration made clear comments on how it approaches the VFA negotiations.  Nonetheless, the Filipino president recognized that “the exigency of the moment requires their (US) presence here,” thus signaling the potential revival of the deal in the near future. 

“We at the defense department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana added, reflecting broad domestic support for restoring defense ties under the new US administration.