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VFA is for keeps

Amid the spike of COVID-19 cases, US-Philippine war drills took off on April 13, lasting until yesterday, April 23. Canceled last year, today’s Balikatan joint war drills were scaled down to tabletop and simulation tests rather than field training.

The war drills were held as tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) burst anew in the wake of reports of the presence of over 200 Chinese fishing boats moored around Philippine-claimed Whitsun Reef in the Spratly islands. The vessels were said to be part of the People’s Liberation Army’s maritime militia—a claim corrected by Beijing as mere “fishing boats.”

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The drills also took place amid a US military upbeat that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which calls for joint exercises on Philippine soil, will survive President Duterte’s threats to terminate it. Indeed, since he declared its abrogation in February 2020, Mr. Duterte has back-flipped, allowing the termination to be suspended twice.

There are reasons for the Americans to be cocksure in keeping the VFA. Reports are that the agreement is under renegotiation, where the United States will commit to an unassailable response to an external aggression on the Philippines, which is ambiguous in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

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Moreover, the VFA termination is not supported by Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet, including the defense and foreign secretaries as well as his envoy to Washington. In the Senate, many members are against scrapping the agreement. They have asked the high court to validate their power in ratifying any treaty signed by the President.

Just as the United States cannot give up the VFA, it will not allow the mother treaty MDT, the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and other pacts to go down the drain either. US President Joe Biden’s hawkish policy seeks to rebuild America’s alliance systems and defense partnerships, including in East Asia. The target is to form a united front behind the United States’ overarching strategy of containment and encirclement of China. Part of this is to challenge Chinese presence in the SCS through enhanced Freedom of Navigation Operations and joint war exercises with its allies and defense partners. Frontlining the operations are aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious-ready groups, nuclear-powered subs, B-52H and B-1B bombers, and spy planes.

Any reduction in US presence in the country if the VFA is junked will undercut America’s strategic advantage in using the Philippines as a forward outpost contiguous to the SCS and exponentially China. Losing the Philippines will be costly to US operations if these are launched from its bases in Guam, Honolulu, Japan, or South Korea.

This needs to be explained. The new US president has pledged never to allow China to overtake the United States economically and its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and across the world. This goal enjoys bipartisan consensus in the US Congress, whose support Biden needs to fund his programs and for the Democrats to stay in power. More than ever, the last thing US politicians and the corporate elite would like to see is a China surpassing America, which would be detrimental to the latter’s power supremacy. Biden and his team are determined to deter China’s rise as an economic leader as they seek to bring the United States back at the head of the global liberal order.

Strangely, the bilateral channels that Beijing and Manila had agreed upon to resolve maritime issues and the regional platform meant to craft a Code of Conduct in the region appear to be quiescent. These mechanisms provide a window of opportunity to settle bilateral and regional disputes—initially through cooperation projects—that can ease tensions in the SCS, leaving the United States without any rationale for sustaining its maritime operations.

Ignored by VFA apologists is the agreement’s onerous character, which preserves the Philippines’ neo-colonial status vis-à-vis the United States. There have been high-profile cases where Filipinos were victimized by American servicemen. Their custody was then exercised by their superiors, jeopardizing the country’s criminal jurisdiction. Clearly, the United States has taken advantage of the Philippines’ strategic location for its geopolitical interests. The country is vulnerable to being dragged into a shooting war between the two powers in case of accidents or extreme provocations in the SCS. By then, it will be too late to call for a VFA review.

Bobby Tuazon teaches at UP Manila and is a book editor and co-author.

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TAGS: Duterte, military drills, Philippines, US, VFA
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