Defense and foreign affairs officials have warned President Duterte that scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) will remove a potent deterrence against Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The VFA allows Philippine and US soldiers to conduct joint military exercises in the Philippines.
The usual scenario of these periodic exercises is an assault by Philippine and US marines on a Philippine island in the WPS that has been seized by the military of a third state. These joint exercises send a strong message to China, the only state mostly likely to seize Philippine islands in the WPS, that the Philippines has a powerful ally in defending the WPS. Abrogating the VFA will send a clear but opposite message to China — that the Philippines has no powerful ally in defending the WPS. Even before he was elected President, Mr. Duterte had been publicly sending to China the message that the WPS is for China to seize at any time.
In April 2016, then presidential candidate Duterte declared, “We will not insist on the ownership for the simple reason that we cannot enforce our desire to own.” Back then, Mr. Duterte was already against joint military exercises with the US, stating “They’re always conducting joint exercises here. I will not commit Filipino soldiers.”
In September 2016, President Duterte banned joint patrols by the Philippine Navy with the US Navy. Mr. Duterte declared, “We will not join any expedition or patrolling. I will not allow it because I do not want my country to be involved in a hostile act.” Mr. Duterte added, our “territory is limited to the 12-mile limit. Hanggang diyan lang tayo.” This was an order by Mr. Duterte to the Philippine Navy not to patrol our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the WPS.
In December 2016, President Duterte announced, “I will set aside the arbitral ruling.” At the same time, Mr. Duterte warned the US, “Prepare for the eventual repeal or the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement.” In the same month, Mr. Duterte reiterated, “I will not impose anything on China,” confirming that he would not enforce the arbitral ruling against China.
In March 2017, when asked what he would do if China reclaims Scarborough Shoal, President Duterte replied, “We cannot stop China from doing [these] things.” Mr. Duterte’s reply practically gave the green light to China to build a military base on Scarborough Shoal.
In April 2017, President Duterte echoed China’s historical claim to the South China Sea, saying “They really claim it as their own, noon pa iyan. xxx That’s why it’s called China Sea xxx historical na iyan.” Mr. Duterte asserted this even as the arbitral tribunal had already ruled in July 2016 that China never had any historical right or claim to the South China Sea.
In May 2018, President Duterte revealed that China promised to protect him from any ouster or coup. Mr. Duterte explained: “The assurances of Xi Jinping were very encouraging. ‘We will not—,’ eh nandiyan naman sila (anyway they’re there). ‘We will not allow you to be taken out from your office.’” China’s presence “there” in the WPS is the guarantee that China will protect Mr. Duterte. No wonder Mr. Duterte enthused publicly, “I simply love Xi Jinping.”
In November 2018, President Duterte conceded that China is “already in possession” of the South China Sea. Military exercises by the US and its allies, including the Philippines, will only “create frictions xxx that will prompt a response from China.”
Clearly, President Duterte has repeatedly weakened our defenses in the WPS. This violates the constitutional mandate that “[t]he State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its xxx exclusive economic zone.” The task of protecting the nation’s marine wealth in our EEZ falls on the Armed Forces, whose commander in chief is President Duterte.
President Duterte will not stop at terminating the VFA. Believing he can terminate a treaty all by himself, he will most likely go for the jugular — terminating the Mutual Defense Treaty. This will fulfill what he declared to his Chinese hosts in Beijing in October 2016: “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines and Russia. xxx So I will be dependent on you for all time.”