Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has backflipped on his divorce plans with the US military why?

03-Jul-2020 Intellasia | ABC | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently suspended a decision that was described by analysts as one of the geopolitical shocks of the decade.

In February, the President announced he would rip up the long-standing Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, which operationalises the two countries’ Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951.

The MDT is similar to Australia’s ANZUS security pact with the US also signed in 1951 as an attack in the Pacific threatening either party’s “territorial integrity, political independence, or security” will automatically trigger a consultation process between Manila and Washington.

The cancellation of the VFA, signed between the two countries in 1998, means the MDT is effectively nullified, as American troops and military hardware wouldn’t be allowed on, or to pass through, Philippine territory and waters.

By early June, however, Duterte surprised members of his own administration when he suspended his decision to cancel the VFA.

“We had until early August to finalise the [termination], so we were all waiting for a plot twist,” Richard Heydarian, a Filipino writer and analyst in South-East Asian politics, told the ABC.

The twist came on June 1 when a government statement said the cancellation of the VFA would be suspended for six months and offered the US another six-month extension from January 1, 2021 without elaboration.

‘China’s strategic blitzkrieg’

The Philippine-American military alliance is one of the oldest in the Asia-Pacific region, which has its origins in America’s annexation of the Philippines in 1898 following US victory in the Spanish-American War.

After independence in 1946, Manila continued its close security relationship with Washington, with American bases in the Philippines remaining active until the early 1990s.

In 2014, US forces were allowed to return to and operate at the Philippine bases in an agreement known as the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), however this agreement has languished since the 2016 election of Duterte, who has consistently voiced anti-American sentiments throughout his presidency.

A spokesperson for Malacanang a term used to describe the presidential palace akin to that of the White House in the US said the decision to suspend the termination of the VFA was taken “in light of political and other developments in the region”, without specifying what the developments were.

“Nobody knows for sure what prompted Duterte one of most erratic heads of states out there,” Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC.

“It was said from the beginning that he didn’t consult or have support from other departments, including from the military when he announced [his] unilateral decision in February.”

Last week Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr cleared the ambiguity in an interview with local broadcaster ABS-CBN, citing rising military tensions in the South China Sea an energy-rich body of water home to competing territorial claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, and China.

“Having a rise in military tension in the South China Sea was not helping anybody. He just called us and said, ‘That’s it, suspend it’,” Secretary Locsin said.

In recent months, China’s neighbours and the US have argued that Beijing has sped up its militarisation of the South China Sea, which has included regularly flying fighter patrols over the disputed waters, and sending Chinese Coast Guard vessels into the area.

In April, the Chinese Navy also sailed a battle group, led by the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, past Taiwan’s east coast.

China claims sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea the area is marked by a ‘nine-dash line’ which cuts through a swathe of its neighbours’ territorial claims.

However, a 2016 landmark arbitration case initiated by the Philippines at The Hague found China had “no legal basis” to claim rights in South China Sea.

Morgan Ortagus, a US State Department spokesperson, has also recently rebuked China for coercing its neighbours in the sea while they were focusing on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Heydarian’s view, Beijing’s behaviour in the waterway over the past few months amounts to a “Chinese strategic blitzkrieg”.

“The Chinese have just been so naked and brazen,” he said.

“For China to harass Filipino frigates, harass the Malaysian West Capella [oil drilling] ship, drown a Vietnamese fishing boat… these things did not really help Duterte’s case on China.

“It absolutely makes no sense to go through an ugly divorce with our only treaty ally in this moment of utmost strategic insecurity, brought about no less than by an opportunistic China it has definitely forced Duterte’s hand.”

Duterte wants ‘a loaded gun’

On both sides of the Pacific, Manila and Washington’s security establishment are bracing for change.

The US will be the first cab off the rank with November’s presidential election, followed by the Philippines’ presidential election in May 2022.

The latter election will be critical as it will mark the end of Duterte’s reign, as Philippine presidents are limited to a single six-year term.

Warning: This section contains a graphic image

One security analyst, who spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity, said Malacanang’s VFA U-turn was designed as a bargaining chip if US presidential candidate Joe Biden comes to power and sanctions the Philippines over human rights abuses.

Throughout his term, Duterte has waged a bloody ‘war on drugs’, which has seen the extra-judicial killings of thousands of predominantly poor Filipinos at the hands of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and other state actors.

A report from the UN Human Rights Council into the alleged killings released in early June found there were “serious human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent”.

The UN also noted that the drug war’s death toll may be triple the official death toll of 8,663.

Duterte’s actions haven’t gone unnoticed in Washington.

In January, the US cancelled the visa of Senator Ronald dela Rosa the President’s first PNP chief and widely considered to be the architect of the drug war which prompted Duterte to make threats on the VFA.

“What Duterte’s done by suspending the cancellation of the VFA is a perfect way of holding hostage any measures the US might take to penalise the Philippines,” the analyst said.

“Duterte’s gun is loaded [if] the Biden administration comes into office.”

The analyst added it was the lure of bases that could save Duterte’s skin even with a Biden Administration, given that Malacanang has refused to carry out 2014′s EDCA treaty, which would give American troops access to six bases across the archipelago.

“What the US really wants is the ability to rotate jets and personnel into these bases as a way of deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea,” the analyst said.

“If a Biden Administration can get through to mid-2022 with the VFA intact, they can work with Duterte’s successor to carry out EDCA and it’s unlikely that they would be very closely aligned with Duterte.”

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs has been approached for comment.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-02/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-us-vfa-south-china-sea-military/12406838?nw=0

 


Category: Philippines

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