The Philippine government reversed course on Tuesday, saying it would keep a long-standing military treaty with the United States known as the Visiting Forces Agreement, which President Rodrigo Duterte has blasted as unjust.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin made the statement on Twitter on Tuesday, claiming he had informed Washington in a diplomatic message.
The decision not to cancel the agreement was reached “in light of political and other developments in the region,” according to Locsin.
Welcoming the reversal, the United States Embassy in Manila said in a statement: “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines.”
The turnaround was regarded by some political observers as a hint that China’s neighbors are concerned about its growing military assertiveness.
Given that the Philippines is the only treaty partner of the United States that borders the South China Sea, a crucial maritime trading route, several observers interpreted the reversal as a strategic win for the US.
“In light of China’s continued assertion of its historic rights in Vietnamese and Malaysian waters over the last year, Manila may have concluded that its previous rapprochement with Beijing would not protect Philippine interests,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a political-science professor who is director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Beijing has long sought to weaken U.S. alliances, and has benefited from the friction in recent years in U.S.-Philippine relations,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“So a decision by Manila to suspend plans to terminate the V.F.A. will be seen as contrary to Chinese interests,” Glaser added.
China did not respond to the Philippines’ decision right away.
Philippine forces have received training from their American counterparts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking under the Visiting Forces Agreement. Every year, hundreds of joint exercises are held.
According to Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian at the Philippine think tank Institute of Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, Manila needed the alliance more than the US, and the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic would “wallop” the Philippines’ ability to maintain and modernize its armed forces.