US - Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement

The US - Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) has been in news in the last two years because President Duterte of the Philippines has expressed anguish over lack of US’ support for its claims in South China Sea against the growing Chinese assertiveness in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Duterte had threatened to withdraw from two decades old VFA agreement signed in 1998 and is due to expire in August this year.

In mid-June, the Duterte government announced that it would be deffering the decision to withdraw from the VFA for another six months which would provide enough time for the two sides to address Philippines concerns related to the Agreement. The US Department of Defense appreciated the move and expressed that the two sides would work on addressing nagging issues in the VFA.

The VFA is seen as a bedrock of the Philippines-US cooperation as it permits US forces to be stationed in Philippines and be treated under the VFA in case of any incident. The bilateral relations between the two countries have been on a downslide and Manila has accused the US of making cosmetic statements without undertaking any military countermoves in support of the Philippines in the wake of aggressive posturing by China's maritime militia which has been threatening Filipino fishermen. The developments in the Whitsun reef in April have been a major deterrent for Philippines to abrogate the VFA.

Chinese maritime militia had mobilised 200 large fishing boats and had stationed these in the area for more than one week. Since 2012 China has been making extensive efforts to occupy features located in the Philippines EEZ. In 2012 China positioned its coastguard boats and Navy vessels closer to the Scarborough Shoal and subsequently at Mischief reef thus completely undermining Philippines sovereign right under 1982 UNCLOS.

Under the VFA, Philippines enjoys preferential treatment in terms of protecting its national security under the Mutual Defense Treaty signed with the US in 1951. The Philippines has also been unhappy with regard to the US approach after the judgment of Permanent Code of Arbitration(PCA) ruling in 2016 when it declared that all the features that China has occupied in South China Sea are illegal and do not sustain human habitation. Following which Philippines was expecting that the US would come out strongly in support of the nation but the US dithered while handling China. Subsequent events in the South China Sea have shaken Philippines trust in the US in terms of support and undertaking countermeasures against Chinese aggression in South China Sea waters.

More recently, Philippines has been unhappy because Filipino Senator Ronald Rosa’s US visa had been revoked. Senator Rosa was involved in anti-drug efforts and during his time as the Chief of the Police Department a suspected Filipinos had died in police custody. The US State Department had expressed displeasure against such extrajudicial deaths and decided to revoke his visa. This was seen as a major setback to the bilateral ties and President Duterte said that he had every right to pursue an ‘independent foreign policy’.

The revocation of Senator Rosa’s visa and President Duterte’s strong resentment against the US diktats brought out concerns with regard to renewal of VFA. However, with the US announcing that it will export millions of COVID-19 vaccines to Philippines, and a strong verbal support for the Philippines against China's intimidation, Manila delayed termination of the VFA.

In the past, Philippines has also been concerned with regard to lack of jurisdiction over US military personnel who have committed crimes in Philippines. One such case was in 2015 when a US marines killed a Filipino woman and instead of being tried under the Philippines laws, the US marine was put under joint imprisonment for 12 years to be managed by both parties.

Within Philippines a large number of population supports continuing with the VFA which is a part of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two sides. Under the VFA, the US has been deploying troops and supporting Philippines efforts against the offshoots of Islamic State in the country. The presence of the US forces has helped the Philippines armed forces’ fight against Islamic State influenced insurgents in parts of southern Philippines. Given the fact that Philippine Air Force is weak and has very few fighter aircrafts and attack helicopters, its efforts against Islamic insurgents is not paying the desired dividends. Even Philippine Navy has benefited from the US donated patrol boats and it also purchased a few second hand US Navy vessels providing that extra force required for countering China's maritime incursions.

The dissonance between the US and the Philippines started during President Trump’s administration. The US has been trying hard to cajole Philippines to remain committed to the VFA by showing resolve to protect Philippines national interest in South China Sea and has been undertaking ‘group sail’ as well as maritime surveillance activities. It would be interesting to see how Philippines detaches its foreign policy anchored on its alliance relationship with the US and tries to gravitate towards China and Russia.

Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha is Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies, JSIA, Jindal Global, University, New Delhi.

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