Philippines Backs Off Threat to Terminate Military Pact With U.S.

MANILA — In a reversal, the Philippine government on Tuesday said it was suspending plans to terminate a longstanding military pact with the United States that President Rodrigo Duterte had criticized as unfair to his country in a fit of angry rhetoric.

The Philippine foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin, made the announcement over Twitter, saying that he had informed Washington of the decision in a diplomatic note. The decision was made “in light of political and other developments in the region,” Mr. Locsin said in the diplomatic note, without elaboration.

“The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the president’s instruction,” Mr. Locsin said in his Twitter post, referring to Mr. Duterte. “The note is self-explanatory and does not require comment from me.”

In February, Mr. Duterte had ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, endangering a security blanket for the Philippines, which has been facing increasingly hostile Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Under terms of the agreement, Washington and Manila had 180 days after the issuance of a termination notice — until August, in this case — to try to salvage the deal.

The pact permitted large-scale joint exercises that allowed the United States military to operate in the Philippines, decades after the Americans were evicted from naval bases north of Manila because of lease disagreements.

“The United States welcomes the Philippine government’s decision,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a statement on Tuesday. “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines.”

Mr. Duterte’s decision to end the military alliance came after Washington refused to grant a visa to Senator Ronald dela Rosa, the early architect of Mr. Duterte’s violent war against drugs.

The notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement came as Mr. Duterte was warming up to China while distancing himself from the United States, the Philippines’ former colonial ruler, and alarmed those in his administration who saw the alliance as a cornerstone of Philippine security and a counterweight to China’s growing naval might in the South China Sea.

Mr. Duterte had lashed out at the United States, saying that it had always gotten the better of the pact, and complained that American troops had taken their modern weapons with them after the military exercises.

He called the Americans “ill mannered” and cursed Central Intelligence Agency agents who he said may have been bugging his phone.

Mr. Duterte had also dismissed the deterrent effect of American forces against China, with which the Philippines has overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. “They do not mean harm,” he said of China and its military, as long as “we do not also do something that is harmful to them.”

Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, Philippine forces have received training from their American counterparts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking. Hundreds of joint exercises are conducted annually.

Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian at the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, a Philippine think tank, said that many of Mr. Duterte’s own allies were not enthusiastic about ending the treaty, and potentially a military alliance that stretched back to 1951.

Mr. Custodio said that Manila needed the alliance more than the United States did, adding that the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic would “wallop” the Philippines’ ability to maintain and modernize its armed forces.



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