President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has pulled the plug on geostrategy in a particularly sensitive region. With Tuesday’s announcement terminating the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States (VFA), the mercurial leader has effectively downgraded an alliance that has been important to American interests.
There is little doubt that the presidential palace in Manila has initiated the move at a critical juncture in international game theory, specifically when Washington and its allies are trying to press China to abide by the “international rules of order” in Asia. In the wider canvas, the decision will bear on the trans-Pacific relationship.
A free hand in terms of foreign policy appears to have been a compelling factor. It is pretty obvious too that Duterte, who has clashed with the United States on several issues, has terminated the pact with the former colonial ruler to enable the Philippines to be more independent in its relations with other countries.
The President’s office has let it be known that he will not entertain any initiative coming from the US government to salvage the VFA. Nor for that matter will he accept any official invitation to visit the United States. Duterte has charted his course of action, though it will be presumptuous to aver that the initiative is intended to be a snub to the White House and Pentagon.
The decision, sparked by the revocation of a US visa held by a former police chief who led Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, could complicate US military interests in the Asia-Pacific region as China becomes increasingly ambitious geopolitically. The waters of the South China Sea might now get choppier still and the maritime narrative still more fraught.
The decision will also restrict the access of the Philippines to US training and expertise to tackle Islamist extremism, natural disasters and maritime security threats. Duterte’s move follows what the government in Manila describes as US legislative and executive actions that “bordered on assaulting our sovereignty and disrespecting our judicial system”.
Ergo, central to the termination of the pact is the terribly important question of sovereignty. China is yet to react given the coronavirus disaster and the horrendous death toll of 1,000 plus. Any reversal of the decision will perhaps rest on President Duterte individually, and this seems rather unlikely quite yet not the least because of the alienation of the Philippines from the United States.
Terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement could impinge on America’s future interests in maintaining an AsiaPacific troop presence. To that can be added the friction over the presence of US personnel in Japan and South Korea and security concerns about China and North Korea. Afghanistan is quite another story.