Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been warning the United States that the Philippines would exit the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a major bilateral defense pact, and now he has formally triggered that process. Should he in fact take his country out of the VFA, the two countries' military relationship would continue in diminished form — but China would enjoy more freedom to pursue its strategic interests in the region.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's Feb. 11 formal announcement to the United States that the Philippines would be withdrawing from the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in six months will increase the urgency of negotiations set to begin in March between the two countries over the major bilateral military pact. While an end to the VFA would not end the two countries' military relationship given that several other security agreements would remain in force between them, it would complicate that relationship.
What It Means
Despite Duterte's antagonism toward the United States since he took office in 2016, engagement between the two countries has increased over the past two years. In 2019, Manila was even able to favorably renegotiate its 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.
The Philippines is a key U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, and the two form a partnership to check Chinese expansion, particularly in the South China Sea.
The VFA has particularly benefited Manila, providing it with military assistance and financial grants, and has helped it counter domestic insurgencies. The Philippines is a key U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, and the two form a partnership to check Chinese expansion, particularly in the South China Sea, where Chinese and Philippine territorial claims overlap. Canceling the VFA would weaken that collaboration and give China more freedom to pursue its strategic interests.
Duterte has tried to balance the Philippines' geopolitical rivalry with China over territorial disputes with the economic opportunities afforded by deeper Chinese ties. The termination of the VFA would remove the underlying legal framework that allows U.S. troops and joint military exercises in the Philippines and would hinder associated humanitarian assistance. Future exercises and projects would require customized agreements, making cooperation more cumbersome. Duterte, however, faces considerable internal opposition to ending the agreement. Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana has advocated a formal review of the VFA before deciding whether to terminate it, and the Philippine Senate has supported such a proposal. Members of the opposition have also challenged the president's authority to withdraw from the agreement without Senate approval.