30 Jul 2021

Philippines' Duterte backtracks on key troop pact with United States

5:53 pm on 30 July 2021

President Rodrigo Duterte has restored a crucial pact governing the presence of US troops in the Philippines, the two countries' defence ministers said on Friday, reversing a decision that had caused increasing concern in Washington and Manila.

(Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the annual state of the nation address at the House of Representatives in Manila on July 26, 2021.

President Rodrigo Duterte's decision won't change much on the ground as the pact had not been terminated. Photo: AFP

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises. It has assumed additional importance as the United States and its allies contend with an increasingly assertive China.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzna said he was unsure why Duterte had reversed himself but he made the decision after meeting US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Manila on Thursday.

Duterte's decision won't change much on the ground as the pact had not been terminated but it provides stability for both countries.

"This provides certainty for us going forward, we can do long-range planning and do different types of exercises," Austin said during a news conference with his Philippine counterpart.

The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA.

Duterte vowed to terminate the pact after the United States denied a visa to a Philippine senator who is an ally of the president. But he had repeatedly pushed back the expiry date, the last time last month, maintaining it until the end of the year.

Strategic importance for US

For the US, having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defence of the Philippines, but strategically when it comes to countering China's assertive behaviour in the region.

"[Duterte's decision] opens up significant possibilities for strengthening the alliance that were otherwise closed," said Greg Poling, with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

There are long-standing tensions between the Philippines and China over disputed waters in the South China Sea.

The US this month repeated a warning to China that an attack on Philippine forces in the South China Sea would trigger a 1951 US-Philippines mutual defence treaty.

There are, however, still questions about Duterte's unpredictability.

"Some of the celebration is premature... [the VFA] will continue to be under threat so long as Duterte remains president," said Aaron Connelly from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Philippine presidential elections are set for 2022 and while Duterte is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election, his party has been encouraging him to run again for office, as vice president.

- Reuters

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