Philippines backtracks on termination of US military deal

President Rodrigo Duterte suspends for at least six months the termination of a 21-year-old defence pact with the US.

Coronavirus - Philippines - Duterte
Duterte will continue conducting joint military exercises with United States forces [File: Rolex Dela Pena/EPA]

The Philippine government has said it is temporarily suspending the termination of its military pact with the United States that allows joint military exercises with US forces.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced on Tuesday that due to the “political and other developments in the region”, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) had been extended for at least six months.

Locsin wrote on social media that the suspension was made upon Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “instruction”.

“It has been received by Washington and well at that,” he added.

“The suspension shall start on even date and shall continue for six months, which period is extendible by the Philippines for another six months,” after which the countdown to termination “shall resume”, read a June 1 letter by Locsis to the embassy of the US in Manila.

In a statement on Tuesday, the US embassy said it welcomed the Philippine government’s decision.

“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defence cooperation with the Philippines,” it added.

Signed in 1999, the agreement between the two countries provides a framework for the temporary entry of US troops to the Philippines for joint training exercises with Filipino forces.

The pact can be terminated through written notice from either party, which would take effect in 180 days after the notice is served. The Philippines issued the notice of suspension in February and the termination would have taken effect in August.

Maritime dispute

Locsin did not elaborate on the reason behind Duterte’s latest move. But in recent months, China has stepped up its activities in the disputed South China Sea, part of which is claimed by the Philippines.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, China started operating “research stations” on facilities built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef.

According to the US, China has also “continued to deploy maritime militia around the Spratly Islands”, which is also being contested by the Philippines and other neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.

Beijing has said it has the right to build in waters where it exercises sovereignty and has ignored and continued to defy an historic 2016 decision by an international tribunal that invalidated China’s claims of the entire South China Sea – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

In January, Duterte had threatened to end the defence pact in retaliation against the US government’s cancellation of the tourist visa of his political ally and former national police chief, Senator Ronald dela Rosa.

Dela Rosa has said the cancellation of his tourist visa was most likely because of allegations of extrajudicial killings during his more than two-year term as police chief.

He was the chief enforcer of Duterte’s anti-narcotics crackdown, which has resulted in deaths of more than 5,000 people, according to officials. Police say victims were shot by officers in self-defence.

Human rights watchdogs, however, said the death toll in the drug war could be at least 27,000.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies