PICTURED: President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
MANILA, Philippines. February 12th, 2019. In a unilateral move, President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte terminated the two-decade old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) his country held with the United States on the grounds that the alliance prevented the Philippines from acting more independently in international relations, and that the U.S. hasn’t done enough to stop China from constructing what it believes to be a military base in the middle of the disputed South China Sea.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper remarked to the traveling press that the move was “unfortunate,” while Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs at the State Dep. R. Clarke Cooper noted the VFA’s importance by telling the AFP Manila that “the United States has about 300 engagements and exercises that we conduct bilaterally with the Philippines”.
Some Philippine senators sought to block the move as soon as it was announced, stating that it was the Senate that approved the agreement, and it was only they who could scrap it.
However as reported by Al Jazeera, Philippine nationalists argue the U.S. has done too little to prevent China from continuing its aggressive activity in the South China Sea.
While the agreement only serves to allow U.S. military and civilian government personnel to visit and stay in the country longer and with less restrictions, as well as ensuring that criminal procedures against Americans on the island remain within the jurisdiction of American courts, its death, to be rattled in 180 days unless something is done to save it, is the result of months of deteriorating relationships between the two countries.
The South China Sea
With shores on 8 countries, the South China Sea is one of the world’s richest waterways. Throughout her ascendency from Communism, China always believed it, or at least the majority, belonged to her. Vast oil and gas reserves are located there as well as rich fisheries.
But control of these waters are not all her own, since she is forced to share them with countries more closely aligned with the United States, such as the Philippines. This is one of the primary reasons the VFA and other, similar agreements exist between both countries.
Sec. Esper also said withdrawing from it was “in the wrong direction as we both bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region are trying to say to the Chinese: ‘You must obey the international rules of order…’”.
President Duterte however, says the U.S. uses the VFA along with a number of other defense and cooperation pacts to conduct clandestine activities such as spying. He also claimed the U.S. was using Philippine territory as a location to stockpile nuclear weapons which places his country at a higher risk of Chinese aggression.
A number of islands and reefs in the middle of the sea are seen as vitally important for overall control of the waterway, so it’s no surprise that China has built an airstrip, hangers, and supporting facilities for air power on the Spratlys, the largest group, which they maintain are merely there for search and rescue. The powers around the sea have for years argued about the control over the ownership of different parts, but China maintains about 70% control, and regularly intrudes in extraterritorial waters.
Last June, Senator Marco Rubio (R – FL) and Congressman Mike Gallagher (R – WI) introduced the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act in the Senate and House respectively, that would sanction Chinese companies and officials that engage in actions to disturb peace in the region, or make claims on disputed parts within the waterway.
The bills, which have passed neither the House nor the Senate, also instruct the President to levy more sanctions if U.S. intelligence confirms that China is building an air defense identification zone, a policed section of airspace requiring through-flyers to identify themselves, on the Spratlys.
Philippine officials said it was the decision to revoke a U.S. visa held by a former chief of police that sparked the cooling of relations between the WWII allies.
The police officer in question was reportedly the head of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, according to Al Jazeera.
Salvador Panelo, spokesperson for President Duterte stated that: “the president will not entertain any initiative coming from the US government to salvage the VFA, neither will he accept any official invitation to visit the United States”.
As the bills stall, even before making committee, China may see this as an opportunity to advance their territorial claims even further, while the Philippines may look to other avenues of diplomacy for trying to get what she wants out of one of the world’s richest waterways.