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Geopolitics, COVID-19 Behind Philippine About-Face on Defense Pact with US, Officials Say

Aie Balagtas See and Dennis Jay Santos
Manila and Davao, Philippines
2020-06-03
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The American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan stops in Manila Bay during a freedom of navigation run through the South China Sea Aug. 7, 2019.
The American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan stops in Manila Bay during a freedom of navigation run through the South China Sea Aug. 7, 2019.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

Geopolitical tensions amid a global pandemic led Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to keep a key military pact with the United States intact for now, Manila’s top diplomat and other government officials said Wednesday.

The Philippines was looking to reinvigorate bilateral ties with its oldest ally by holding off for at least another six months from exiting its 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S., Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with geopolitics, have led to “heightened superpower tensions,” Locsin told a news conference without naming China, the Asian power contending with the Philippines and other nations over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“A world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world,” Locsin said, two days after Manila notified Washington that it was suspending its decision to terminate the pact.

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense toward enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part in the world,” he added as he read from a prepared statement.

The VFA has allowed large-scale joint military drills with U.S. forces that, defense analysts said, were vital to Manila as it faces a challenge from Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Apart from the Philippines and China, the potentially mineral-rich waterway is claimed in whole or in part by Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

“Because of security issues ... in that part of the world (South China Sea), both our governments have seen it would be prudent for us to simply suspend any implementation of the termination,” Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the U.S., told ABS-CBN, a Philippine news network.

Meanwhile, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana discussed ongoing security efforts regarding the South China Sea.

“Even without the suspension of the abrogation of the VFA, the U.S. continues to patrol the South China Sea because according to them, that’s international waters and they can go there anytime they want,” Lorenza said, adding, “We’re dealing with Chinese in our own way.”

“In times of crises and global uncertainty, it is our belief that nations are only made stronger if we work together and focus our efforts on tracking the various challenges that confront us all,” Lorenzana said in a statement.

The defense chief said he was informed by Duterte of the planned turnaround on the VFA in May, and that he was told the country needed “cooperation from other countries to fight the pandemic.”

In February, the Philippine government notified the U.S. that it planned to drop the 21-year-old bilateral military pact. The move was supposed to be finalized in August.

“The president thought it’s untimely to end the VFA at this time,” Lorenzana said, adding Manila expected increased assistance from U.S. in the next six months.

‘A hedging strategy’

The head of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies, a local think-tank, described the government’s turnaround on the VFA as strategic.

“It is a temporary suspension to allow American troops to conduct military activities in the Philippines in light of the pandemic and recent developments in the South China Sea,” security analyst Rommel Banlaoi told BenarNews.

“Duterte is playing with two major powers. It is a hedging strategy, to get the best of both worlds,” he said.

U.S. officials welcomed the decision, announced Tuesday.

“Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a statement posted on its website shortly after the announcement.

The Philippines health department, meanwhile, recorded 751 new COVID-19 cases and eight deaths on Wednesday, bringing the totals to 19,748 and 974. Globally, more than 6.4 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 381,000 have died as of Wednesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

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