On Tuesday, February 12, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte announced a formal end to the Visiting Forces Agreement — a defense pact between his country and the US. The pact has been a cornerstone of the Philippine-US security relations since 1999, when it was ratified.
Since taking office in 2016, President Duterte has taken a hard line against US influence in the Philippines. While the country has traditionally been a US ally, Duterte has turned away in an attempt to form closer relations with Beijing.
Although Duterte remains extremely popular at home, he has received criticism for courting China, especially as Filipino interests in the South China Sea are concerned.
Over the past several years, Beijing has built up maritime forces surrounding the territorial waters of other countries in the region, including the Philippines.
Following the announcement, Duterte stuck a tone of defiance.
At a press conference, Salvador Panelo, the Philippines’ presidential spokesman, quoted Duterte by saying, “It’s about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country.”
The US reaction
The US response to the announcement from Duterte’s government was somewhat mixed. According to President Trump, his administration isn’t particularly eager to try and save the deal.
“I really don’t mind, if they would like to do that, that’s fine,” Trump said Wednesday during a meeting at the White House. “We’ll save a lot of money. You know my views are different from other people. I view it as, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll save a lot of money,’” he said.
Still, others in the government were more sober in their assessment. For Mark Esper, the US Defense Secretary, the US will take time to consider its options before making a decision. He characterized the move as an “unfortunate” decision by the Philippine government.
A win for Beijing?
The immediate reaction to the news was that China had gained another advantage in the South China Sea, especially over less powerful countries in the region like the Philippines.
Some analysts say that without a guarantee of US assistance, Beijing might be more willing to flaunt unchecked power in the region.
With that said, Esper was doubtful that the decision was a clear win for China, repeating that the US would need time to digest the news.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to China. As you know it’s tied to some other issues. So again, I’m going to take this one step at a time. I don’t get too excited about these things. We’ve got a process we have to work through. We just received it [the official announcement] 9 hours ago,” he said.