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VFA gets another lease on life

In a brief video message released on June 14, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced that the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) has been suspended again for another six months.

This is the third six-month suspension of the agreement’s abrogation. It may be recalled that President Duterte decided to abrogate the VFA in early 2020, and formal notice was served by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to the US government on Feb. 11, 2020. However, on June 3 and then on Nov. 11 of that same year, the VFA abrogation was suspended for six months each time.

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Were the incidents involving Chinese maritime militia vessels in Julian Felipe Reef in March this year and other incursions in the weeks that followed a factor in the President’s decision to again suspend the VFA abrogation? Locsin’s short video message doesn’t mention the rationale for the President’s decision, only mentioning that the decision was made following a meeting between him, the President, and the Philippine ambassador to the US.

However, a review of the statements made on the previous suspensions of the VFA abrogation show that such extensions were made in the context of the South China Sea (SCS) issue. The June 3, 2020 statement released by the DFA made reference to the pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions.” On June 22, Locsin further clarified that “a rise in military tension in the South China Sea does not help anybody.” Locsin’s statement released by the DFA on Nov. 11, 2020, on the other hand, announcing the second suspension of the VFA abrogation, specifically mentioned the SCS as a basis for the decision.

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Viewed in that context, the latest suspension of the VFA abrogation is a message meant not only for the Americans, but also for countries in the region and for China in particular. The abrogation of the VFA would be in China’s main interests as it will affect the ability of the Philippine and US armed forces to conduct exercises and bilateral activities in the Philippines. More critically, it will hamper US military presence in the Philippines and in the region as well.

Assuming that the swarming of Julian Felipe Reef and other related incidents in March and April this year may have influenced the decision to further suspend the VFA abrogation, did China in fact commit a blunder, leading the Philippines to keep the VFA for the meantime?

Quite unlikely. The incidents in March were meant to test not only the Philippines, but also the new Biden administration and its commitment to its allies in the region. Note that around the same time, China was also testing another US ally, Taiwan, with provocative military actions.

Between testing the mettle of the new American president and his administration and risking a further suspension of the VFA’s abrogation, China likely calculated that the former was a more important objective, because it doesn’t matter to China whether the VFA is abrogated or not. For decades, China has had to factor in the Philippines’ military alliance with the US in its dealings with us in relation to the SCS. The further suspension of the VFA abrogation doesn’t significantly alter the operational environment for China in relation to Philippine interests in the SCS.

However, if the VFA got abrogated despite Beijing’s provocations early this year, that would have sent a very positive signal to China. After all, China was not only testing American commitment to its allies in the region, it was also testing the Philippines’ commitment to its American ally. For now, the Philippines seems to be wisely hedging its position between its two major partners who are squaring up against each other. Hopefully, a smart decision will once again be made six months from now.

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Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer, and was diplomatically posted to the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles and the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC.

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TAGS: Commentary, Moira G. Gallaga, PH-US relations, Visiting Forces Agreement
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