WASHINGTON — The Philippines is ending a 20-year military agreement with the United States as Manila continues to move closer into China’s orbit, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The Philippines’ announcement Tuesday that it will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement means it will end in 180 days. The VFA gives legal status to U.S. troops rotated in the country for humanitarian assistance and military exercises.
“So we just got the notification late last night. We have to digest it. We have to work through the policy angles, the military angles. I want to hear from my commanders, but in my view, it’s unfortunate that they would make this move,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Tuesday.
About 300 joint exercises between the two nations’ militaries take place annually under the deal.
The decision was triggered in part by the revoking of a U.S. visa held by the former police chief who led Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs as well as rising tension between the U.S. and China over China’s illegal expansion in the South China Sea.
Durate has pursued better relations with Beijing, which has accommodated the leader.
“The president will not entertain any initiative coming from the U.S. government to salvage the VFA, neither will he accept any official invitation to visit the United States,” Salvador Panelo, a spokesperson for Durate, said in a statement to the media on Tuesday.
While the end of the relationship is a setback for the U.S., it also has direct consequences for the Philippines.
Eliminating the agreement will reduce Manila’s access to U.S. training and expertise in tackling Islamist extremism — which was critical a few years ago in battling Muslim rebels — as well as help in natural disasters and maritime security threats. The U.S. has provided $1.3 billion in defense aid since 1998.
“I think it’s a move in the wrong direction, again for the long-standing relationship we’ve had with the Philippines, for their strategic location, for the ties between our peoples, our countries,” Esper said. “But look we just got the notification last night, we got to read it, we got to digest it, 180 days, we got to work through it, and we’ll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time.”
Two other agreements between the two nations remain — the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.