Amid China tensions, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte wants to retain VFA with the U.S.

President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines

In February, the President announced he would rip up the long-standing Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, which operationalises the two countries’ Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951.

Manila said it suspended the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) due to tensions in the South China Sea. The VFA sets out the terms of US troop activity in Philippine territory

The cancellation of the VFA, signed between the two countries in 1998, means the MDT is effectively nullified, as American troops and military hardware wouldn’t be allowed on, or to pass through, Philippine territory and waters.

South China Sea Tensions

The Philippine-American military alliance is one of the oldest in the Asia-Pacific region, which has its origins in America’s annexation of the Philippines in 1898 following US victory in the Spanish-American War.

After independence in 1946, Manila continued its close security relationship with Washington, with American bases in the Philippines remaining active until the early 1990s.

In 2014, US forces were allowed to return to and operate at the Philippine bases in an agreement known as the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), however this agreement has languished since the 2016 election of Mr Duterte, who has consistently voiced anti-American sentiments throughout his presidency.

Last week Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr cleared the ambiguity in an interview with local broadcaster ABS-CBN, citing rising military tensions in the South China Sea — an energy-rich body of water home to competing territorial claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, and China.

In recent months, China’s neighbours and the US have argued that Beijing has sped up its militarisation of the South China Sea, which has included regularly flying fighter patrols over the disputed waters, and sending Chinese Coast Guard vessels into the area.

In April, the Chinese Navy also sailed a battle group, led by the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, past Taiwan’s east coast.

China claims sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea — the area is marked by a ‘nine-dash line’ which cuts through a swathe of its neighbours’ territorial claims.

However, a 2016 landmark arbitration case initiated by the Philippines at The Hague found China had “no legal basis” to claim rights in South China Sea.

Morgan Ortagus, a US State Department spokesperson, has also recently rebuked China for coercing its neighbours in the sea while they were focusing on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.This article contains content that is only available in the web version.

At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.

Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline.

Philippines EEZ

Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.

However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.

China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.

Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.

Chinese Aggression

One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.

Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

“For China to harass Filipino frigates, harass the Malaysian West Capella [oil drilling] ship, drown a Vietnamese fishing boat, these things did not really help Duterte’s case on China.

“It absolutely makes no sense to go through an ugly divorce with our only treaty ally in this moment of utmost strategic insecurity, brought about no less than by an opportunistic China — it has definitely forced Duterte’s hand.”

Russia Won’t Help Philippines Against China

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. Photo: AP
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. Photo: AP

Moscow is offering to help the Philippines produce its own arms for both domestic use and export with the help of Russian technology, envoy Igor Khovaev has revealed.

The proposal comes less than a month after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s second state visit to Russia. It also comes as ties with the United States, Manila’s traditional military ally, remain strained over human rights concerns related to Duterte’s war on drugs.

“Russia will never teach anyone human rights … We’ll never use our defence cooperation as a pretext to interfere, to meddle in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states,” he said.

The US in 2016 halted the sale of up to 27,000 M4 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police amid concerns they could be used for extrajudicial killings in the country’s violent crackdown on drugs.

Russia’s presence in the South China Sea complicates the ongoing disputes between China and its neighbours over competing territorial claims. If the Philippines engages in joint exploration with Rosneft, Russia could start to play a wider role in the region.

Russia says it has no intention of getting involved in territorial disputes or siding with any party. Its actions so far reflect that stance. Russia–China relations have been warming for some time, and earlier this year Moscow and Beijing upgraded their relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’. Chinese President Xi Jinping described the bilateral relationship as being ‘at its best in history’.

Russia has also been a key long-term defence partner for Vietnam, both strategically and militarily. Beijing pressured Hanoi to scrap its resource drilling projects with Spanish firm Repsol in 2017 and 2018, reportedly threatening to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the exploration continued.

Russia would never go against Chinese interest in the region, Russian hardware would not be an option for Philippine military.

Only American Can Help

By early June, however, Mr Duterte surprised members of his own administration when he suspended his decision to cancel the VFA.

The twist came on June 1 when a Government statement said the cancellation of the VFA would be suspended for six months and offered the US another six-month extension from January 1, 2021 without elaboration.

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