A US navy personnel (L) gives instructions to his Philippine counterpart during drills at a naval base in Sangley point, Cavite City, west of Manila on June 28, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe
A US Navy member (left) gives instructions to his Philippine counterpart during drills at a naval base in Sangley Point, Cavite City, west of Manila. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

MANILA – After five years of populist fire and fury, the Philippines’ Beijing-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte is losing his long quest to sever his country’s century-old alliance with the United States.

The month-long Whitsun Reef standoff and China’s unfulfilled promises of large-scale investments have strengthened the position of the Philippine defense establishment, which is intent on preserving robust defense cooperation with the Pentagon.

Last month, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr tweeted that ongoing negotiations to fully restore the all-crucial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was abrogated by Duterte over US criticism of his rights record last year, are “almost done.”

Meanwhile, Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin recently held high-stakes talks over revitalizing bilateral security ties amid shared concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea as well as transnational terrorism.

The two mutual defense treaty allies are widely expected to preserve the VFA, which facilitates large-scale entry of US troops on Philippine soil, and even work towards an expanded agreement after Duterte’s departure next year. Under the Philippines’ 1987 constitution, the president can only serve a single six-year term in office.

Amid growing public pressure, Duterte has issued an unprecedented gag order to prevent any direct or indirect criticism of his China policy by top government officials.

“This is my order now to the Cabinet, and to all and sundry talking for the government, to refrain from discussing the [South China Sea] with anybody,” Duterte said in his latest national address.

The order followed recent tough statements by his defense and foreign secretaries against Beijing during a bitter standoff over the Whitsun Reef in the past month.

Last month, Lorenzana accused Beijing of “appalling” disregard for international law, while Locsin dropped the f-bomb following a series of unheeded diplomatic protests against the lingering presence of Chinese maritime militia forces in Philippine waters.

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

“If we talk, we talk, but just among us,” the Filipino president added, gently chastising some of his top lieutenants for contradicting his Beijing-friendly position and leaking incriminating reports about China’s creeping presence across Philippine claimed waters.

Feeling the heat, Duterte was quick to preempt any accusation of soft-pedaling on the disputes by vowing to continue sovereignty patrols in the South China Sea.

“Our agencies have been directed to do what they must and should to protect and defend our nation’s interest. We will not waver in our position,” Duterte said.  

In rare defiance of China, the Filipino president earlier warned his strategic patron, “I will not retreat. Kill me if you want to kill me, I will be here. This is where our friendship will end.”

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has been skeptical of China’s intentions and consistently maintained strong ties with the US even as Duterte sought to downgrade relations, welcomed the president’s directive.

“We do not have any issue with the president’s express directive to the Cabinet. In so far as the AFP is concerned, we are better silently but faithfully performing our mission,” said AFP spokesperson Marine Major General Edgard Arevalo.

“We were not ordered to stop or will neither renege from performing our constitutional mandate to ensure that our people enjoy what our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) provides, nor cease patrolling our seas defending our territory,” he added.

Duterte has come under growing defense establishment pressure to restore the VFA, which will be abrogated this month in the absence of another waiver of extension or full restoration.

On two occasions, in last June and November, the Philippine defense establishment managed to postpone the abrogation of the defense deal by citing, among others, China’s moves in the South China Sea.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wears a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he gives a pep talk to troops fighting the extremist Maute group in Marawi, Philippines August 24, 2017. Photo: Presidential Palace/Handout

The other major area of concern, however, is the threat of transnational terrorism in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao. Back in 2017, a ragtag group of so-called Islamic State-affiliated militants laid a months-long siege on Marawi, the largest Muslim-majority city in the country.

Given the relative inexperience of the AFP in urban warfare, assistance from US Special Forces was crucial to breaking the devastating siege. Throughout the crisis, the US also provided high-grade weaponries and real-time intelligence, which allowed Philippine troops to locate and neutralize extremist militants embedded across the city.

The VFA, which was negotiated in the late-1990s in response to Chinese incursions in the South China Sea, provides the legal framework for continuing rapid deployment of US troops for counterterrorism operations on Philippine soil.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, as many as 400 US soldiers and contractors have been rotationally stationed in bases across Mindanao, providing crucial counterterrorism training to their Filipino counterparts.

At one point, the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), which was disbanded in 2015 after a string of successful joint counterterror operations, hosted as many as 600 American troops and personnel.

Leading experts such as Renato De Castro of De la Salle University in the Philippines have warned that the US is “ready to withdraw” and “pack their bags” later this year should the VFA’s future remain uncertain under Duterte’s watch.

The prospect of a resurgence of terrorist group activities in the southern Philippines has provided a sense of urgency to restore the VFA. Earlier this year, Duterte said he is willing to restore the deal in exchange for US-made Covid-19 vaccines and $16 billion in strategic rents.

Philippine marines take position next to US marines Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) 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

The Filipino populist’s transactionalist posturing was likely inspired by multi-billion military and development aid packages that other US partners such as Egypt and Pakistan have received in the past decade.

Duterte also likely had in mind the Richard Nixon administration’s offer of $1 billion for a five-year extension of US bases in Subic and Clark under the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. 

“It’s a shared responsibility but your share of responsibility does not come free,” Duterte said during a speech before Filipino soldiers in February, with his administration characterizing the leader’s multi-billion-dollar demand as “pennies.”

Duterte’s call, however, was met with widespread criticism, with no less than Vice President Leni Robredo lambasting what she described as an “embarrassing [demand], like we are extorting them.”

The negotiations for the VFA’s restoration have now entered their final phase, according to Duterte’s top officials.

“[US Secretary of Defense] Austin reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it would be continued. Secretary Lorenzana committed to discuss the matter with the president as the final approval lies with him,” the Philippine defense department said following conversations between the two allies last month.

Nonetheless, experts have warned that the VFA’s restoration won’t be enough to deal with China’s rising maritime threat, given how lingering uncertainties under Duterte have undermined the US’ ability to “credibly defend” its Southeast Asian ally.

Two Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef located some 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea, an area claimed by Manila. Photo: AFP / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

In particular, Duterte has successfully blocked the full implementation of other major defense deals, namely the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was supposed to facilitate the prepositioning of US weaponry and equipment in key Philippine bases close to the South China Sea as well as in Mindanao.

“So unless there is an actual EDCA implementation, a pretty rapid one under the next administration, I worry we are in this dangerous area wherein if China pushes too hard, we’re going to find that the alliance is at the moment a paper tiger, not because of the lack of will on our side but because of the lack of preparation and proper posture,” said Greg Poling, director of the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, during a recent conference on the bilateral alliance.

“The US is not [currently] situated in a way that allows it to defend Filipino forces in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.