Updated at 6 a.m. ET
The government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been highly critical of his country’s military alliance with the United States, announced Tuesday that it would scrap a security pact that allows American forces to train there.
In a move that could have consequences for a counter-insurgency against Islamist extremists in the country’s south, Duterte’s foreign secretary, Teodoro Locson Jr., tweeted Tuesday that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. would be unilaterally terminated.
“It’s about time we rely on ourselves, we will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country,” Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said at a regular press briefing, quoting Duterte.
He said Manila would be open to similar agreements with other countries. “As long as it is favorable to us and there is a mutual benefit to both countries, we are open,” he said.
The 1999 VFA pact exempts U.S. military personnel from passport and visa regulations when they come and go for joint exercises and training of troops in the Philippines.
The decision follows anger over Washington’s reported decision last month to cancel the U.S. visa of Philippines Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, a chief architect of Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, which has killed thousands and been widely condemned by international human rights watchdogs.
Duterte demanded that the U.S. restore the visa and began publicly suggesting he would terminate the VFA if it failed to do so.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila issued a statement on Tuesday calling Duterte’s move “a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippine alliance.”
“We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests,” the statement said.
The U.S., which provided some $550 million in military assistance to the Philippines from 2016 to 2019, conducts joint military exercises, such as the annual Balikatan, or “shoulder-to-shoulder,” in Tagalog, with Filipino troops. Balikatan, which sometimes also includes Australian forces, is seen as a show of force against possible military adventures by China.
The U.S. also has kept as many as 100 special forces troops on the Philippine island of Mindanao on a rotating basis to help in Manila’s fight against terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and other militants linked to the Islamic State.
U.S. troops were on the ground in 2017 aiding the Philippine military during a siege of militants in the southern city of Marawi. The U.S. Navy is also seen as a bulwark against China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, a former U.S. territory that gained independence in 1946, has long viewed Washington as its strongest ally. Besides the VFA, it also has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S. that dates back to the 1950s. That pact, along with the Obama administration’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, remains intact.
However, Duterte came to office three years ago with strong words for Washington. Among other things, he has said the U.S. treats the Philippines as “like a dog on a leash,” and has accused U.S. forces of clandestine activities in the country. He came into office executing a dramatic pivot away from the U.S. and toward China, an increasingly strong regional player.
The U.S. has 180 days to respond to the notice of the VFA’s termination.
Duterte has said that President Trump wants to save the deal. However, The Philippines Star quotes presidential spokesman Panelo as saying Duterte “will not entertain” entreaties from the U.S. nor will he accept an invitation to visit the White House.
But in one tweet, Locson, the foreign secretary, seemed to suggest that the cancellation of the pact was mostly a bargaining tactic aimed at getting some unspecified concessions from Washington.
And last week, in a televised Senate hearing, Locsin listed the crucial security, trade and economic benefits the accord provides, according to The Associated Press.
“While the Philippines has the prerogative to terminate the VFA anytime, the continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any predicates were it to be terminated,” he said.