- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Philippine government on Tuesday said it was scrapping a 20-year-old security pact with the United States that allows American troops to take part in military exercises and humanitarian operations in the country, endangering a key foothold for the Pentagon in the region as China adopts an increasingly aggressive tone.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has long questioned the value of the relationship between the armed forces of both countries. The 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, known as the VFA, will expire in 180 days unless both countries agree that it should continue.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, in Europe this week for a NATO defense ministerial summit, called the decision “unfortunate” but said the Pentagon was still seeking details. “I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction,” he said.

R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs told reporters that the U.S. has roughly 300 bilateral engagements and exercises each year with the Philippine military. The U.S. also has provided intelligence and training to Philippine forces that was crucial in their fight against local terror organizations affiliated with radical jihadi groups such as Islamic State.

“Without a VFA, it puts at risk things like these engagements [and] these exercises,” he warned.

The decision by the mercurial Mr. Duterte to scale back ties with the Pentagon is not popular with members of the Philippine military and many of the country’s legislators, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Many see the move — and the six-month lag time — as a gambit to increase the Philippines’ leverage in recalibrating the alliance.

“Six months is a long time in both Manila and Washington,” Mr. Poling said. “The problem is, there’s no legal authority for anybody else to do anything about this. The courts are so broken. There’s virtually no chance that a court actually steps in and decides the question.”

Zack Cooper, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, said it was clear Mr. Duterte was “playing hardball.”

“This is not the first time that Duterte has made threats about the U.S.-Philippine alliance,” he said. “His defense secretary and foreign secretary have both come out and said things that demonstrated they weren’t supportive of this decision.”

Mr. Duterte reportedly was particularly incensed by the Trump administration’s decision to deny a travel visa for a loyal political ally linked to the president’s controversial and violent crackdown on the illegal drug trade begun shortly after his election in June 2016.

If the Philippines does terminate the military-to-military relationship with the United States, that would give China a “green light” in the South China Sea, Mr. Poling said.

“They’ll say, ‘We told you. The Americans are a paper tiger,’” he said.

Mr. Duterte has spoken of improving relations with China, even as much of the country’s establishment has held back. Manila and Beijing have sparred over China’s aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

“There will be a lot of pushback in the Philippines from people who think China might take advantage of them,” Mr. Cooper said.

The accord legally clears the way for U.S. forces, ships and aircraft to enter the country for joint training with Filipino troops. It also sets out legal jurisdiction over the behavior of U.S. soldiers while in the country, a sensitive issue in the former American colony.

The military and foreign policy establishment in Manila will spend the next six months trying to convince Mr. Duterte to change his mind. Although he has done that in the past, something is different this time, Mr. Poling observed.

“He seems more committed. He approached this in a much more deliberate way,” he said. “This one seems like it’s going to be harder to walk back.”

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