WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (Xinhua) — The Philippines’ recent decision to terminate a military pact with the United States could be a severe blow to Washington’s alliance relationship in Asia, said experts, who also believe it remains uncertain how the brawl will play out.
The Philippine government announced on Tuesday that it had formally notified the United States about its decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a military deal signed in 1998 between the two sides that accords a legal status of the U.S. troops operating in the Southeast Asian country.
Manila complained that the deal, which is vital to the overall U.S.-Philippines alliance, was one-sided and unequal.
“Given that there are almost 300 joint military activities each year under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, if the VFA is cancelled this will severely undermine a key alliance partnership in Southeast Asia,” Alexander Neill, an Asia Pacific security expert and the director of AN Consulting based in Singapore, told Xinhua.
“For Washington … this would constitute the biggest blow to any of its treaty alliance relationships in Asia since the end of the Cold War,” wrote the Diplomat, a global current-affair magazine focusing on the Asia-Pacific region.
Neill also pointed out that this is a severe blow to America’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy.
“The Asia Pacific region is the Pentagon’s top priority, therefore this is damaging U.S. policy goals to be both affirmative and inclusive across the region,” he noted.
Meanwhile, experts touched upon Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s possible motive to advance the move.
“President Duterte may have made this decision on his own, but there is a long history of opposition in the Philippines to the U.S. military presence,” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, told Xinhua in an email interview.
For John Schaus, a security expert at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, Duterte is seeking to create greater distance between the Philippines and the United States — what he calls an “independent foreign policy.”
CONTRADICTORY U.S. RESPONSES
Following the Philippines’ announcement, comments from the U.S. government seemed different subtly between senior security officials and President Donald Trump himself.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the Philippines’ decision “unfortunate.”
“We have to digest it. We have to work through the policy angles, the military angles,” the Pentagon chief told reporters on his plane to Brussels on Tuesday.
Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned on Thursday in Sydney that scrapping the VFA will hurt the Philippines’ counter-terrorism fight in the south and the U.S. ability to train and operate with Philippine armed forces would be challenged.
Manila has given a 180-day notice “so we have some time for diplomatic efforts,” added Davidson. “I hope we can get to a successful outcome.”
However, Trump showed little concern over the Philippines’ move. “I never minded that very much, to be honest. We helped the Philippines very much,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday at the White House.
“If they would like to do that, that’s fine. We’ll save a lot of money. You know, my views are different than other people,” he added.
Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, told Xinhua that he thought “the U.S. government will be talking quietly to the government of the Philippines in the coming weeks or months to avert termination.”
While Washington is digesting the explosive news and pondering on the next move, experts say it’s still too early to tell what will happen to the VFA.
“If the VFA was indeed cancelled, this would have a significant impact in terms of complicating U.S. plans to improve its military posture adjacent to the South China Sea,” said Huxley.
“But Duterte’s decision is probably not final: a lot could happen during the next six months,” the scholar added.
Currently there are other two military pacts between Washington and Manila, namely the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Terminating the VFA would leave the U.S. military without any legal or operational standing in the Philippines, which means that they would not be able to support either of these two agreements.
Without a new VFA agreement, U.S. forces currently operating in the Philippines will need to leave or find a new legal status, noted Schaus.
Meanwhile, it’s noteworthy that it’s not the first time America and the Philippines face a stress-testing situation in defense realm. They renegotiated the base agreement terms in the 1970s and witnessed the closure of U.S. military bases in the early 1990s.
“Overall, though, I think the impact would be essentially an annoyance for the United States, which relies on maritime power based on carrier groups in the region rather than on land-based forces,” Huxley.
LINK ORIGINAL: Xinhuanet