By Perry Diaz
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte warned the U.S. last January 24, 2020 that he would scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) if Washington did not reinstate the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, Duterte’s political ally.
Dela Rosa is a former Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief who is now a senator. When he was PNP Chief, dela Rosa, led the government’s anti-drug campaign, Oplan Tokhang, which claimed the lives of more than 5,000 drug users and pushers that human rights advocates say were denied due process. Human rights watchdogs, however, said the death toll in the drug war could be as high as 27,000. They also said many were defenseless victims.
As a result, dela Rosa has been targeted by the U.S. for the extrajudicial killings (EJK) and human rights violations. Dela Rosa was sanctioned by the U.S. and his U.S. visa was revoked and assets and properties in the U.S. frozen.
The Philippines said that imposing sanctions is tantamount to meddling in Philippine internal affairs. However, advocates claim it is the sovereign prerogative of the sanctioning country to impose sanctions. Besides, the Philippines is a United Nations member; thus, it is committed to honor universal human rights. With the adoption of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act by the U.S. Congress, a lot of people suspected of corruption and human rights violations are at risk of being sanctioned.
The visa revocation angered Duterte and he demanded that the U.S. restore dela Rosa’s visa; otherwise, he will terminate the VFA. He gave the U.S. government a one-month ultimatum.
The VFA, signed in 1998, gave legal status to thousands of U.S. troops who were rotated in the country for regular military exercises and humanitarian operations. It replaced a previous agreement that allowed American naval and air bases in the Philippines.
The US and the Philippines conduct between one to two joint military exercises annually. In October 2019, there were an estimated 1,400 US Marines who participated in a military exercise with 600 Filipino troops. If VFA is terminated, the joint exercise known as Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) will no longer be held. All other military assistance and training will be discontinued.
Since 2002, U.S. has deployed about 250 Special Forces troops to the southern Philippines. They have been working quietly alongside Philippine troops spread throughout the region. They are part of a counterterrorism campaign.
Battle for Marawi
During the five-month battle for Marawi in 2017, the Pentagon played down the American military’s role, stating that troops there provided only support and assistance. However, officials said Marine commandos helped break the siege by training Philippine snipers who were struggling to defeat expert marksmen among the extremists who proved difficult to target within the city’s concrete buildings.
U.S. Special Forces have been working quietly alongside Philippine troops spread throughout the country’s southern region. The United States Army’s only Special Operations civil affairs team in the Philippines is also helping the villages around Marawi, where security concerns prevent State Department officials from traveling.
The U.S. also provided at least P2.84 billion in assistance, which included advanced weapons and two C-208 Cessna aircraft to the Philippine Air Force. The surveillance aircraft were used to help in fighting against the rebels in Marawi City.
With the impending termination of VFA, the question is: What happens to the U.S. military aid? Most probably the U.S. will continue providing military weapons to the Philippines. But it’s interesting to see if Duterte would accept them since he would look hypocritical to accept them after terminating VFA.
Then there is the question of three other military agreements between the U.S. and the Philippines: Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA).
The MDT calls for the U.S. to come to the defense of the Philippines if it’s attacked by a foreign power. However, both countries’ defense secretaries have recently said that the MDT needs to be reviewed to reflect current security threats, including an increasingly powerful China.
But the MDT cannot be invoked and get immediate response from the U.S. It has several stipulations, which require some time before the U.S is ready to send its forces to defend the Philippines. First, “Armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
The United Nations would most likely seek a cease-fire between the Philippines and China. If it failed to achieve a cease-fire, then the second article is invoked, that is, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” Constitutional processes mean that the U.S. Congress shall convene for the purpose of declaring war against the country attacking the Philippines.
Realistically, the U.S. Congress would not declare war against the attacking country, particularly China. It would probably seek a cease-fire. But by the time cease-fire is in place, China would have secured and occupied a large chunk of territory.
But it would have been a different scenario if the Philippines did not kick out the U.S. bases in 1992. With a huge airbase and naval base on Philippine territory, China wouldn’t dare attack the Philippines because U.S. response would be immediate. The U.S. forces on Philippine territory would have to defend themselves; thus, no US congressional approval is needed by the US forces.
EDCA is an agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines signed in 2014. It is intended to bolster the U.S.-Philippine alliance. It allows the U.S. to rotate troops into the Philippines for extended stays and allows the U.S. to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases, for both American and Philippine forces. It gives Philippine personnel access to American ships and planes..
But other than building a warehouse for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies at Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga Province, EDCA remains on the drawing board after the US and the Philippines have identified and agreed to use five existing military facilities to host American forces. And without a fully implemented EDCA, the Philippines lost its maritime rights in the South China Sea to China. The United States is seen as a paper tiger unable to protect its allies or defend freedom of the seas.
The MLSA is used to allow U.S. forces on training engagements to turn over military equipment and ammunition expeditiously to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The timely transfers greatly enhance the AFP’s counterterrorism efforts.
Through the MLSA, the AFP is able to receive select munitions and equipment from U.S. military stock in an accelerated process reserved for allies and close partners of the U.S.
End of American presence
With an MDT that is on the brink of obsolescence, a VFA that is terminated, an EDCA that is hopelessly inutile, and an MLSA that would probably be scrapped as a consequence to VFA’s termination, what is left of the once vaunted US-Philippine military alliance, the most powerful military partnership in Asia? Sad to say, it’s moribund and could die anytime. And how is Duterte going to defend Philippine territory from China or homegrown militants? Don’t expect the U.S. to come to the aid of Philippine troops in Mindanao needing special forces support, sophisticated airborne monitoring, and advanced weapons. With an air force with no warplanes, a navy with no warships, and undertrained military personnel, the Philippines would be unable to defend its vast territorial waters.
With Duterte’s threat to end VFA in one month, China and Russia are probably drawing up a plan for the conquest of the Philippines, dividing the archipelago into two vassal states. And it won’t be long before the entire country Is balkanized into mini puppet republics kowtowing to China and Russia.