Analysts see Duterte leaving VFA as unfinished business


PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte may simply leave the fate of the military pact with the United States to the hands of his successor and maintain the administration’s current relations with both America and China, according to analysts.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. announced last week that the President suspended for another six months the termination the visiting forces agreement (VFA) between the US and Philippines, which allows the entry of American troops in the country for joint drills.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center, said Mr. Duterte may choose not to make a final decision on whether the VFA should be terminated.

“I am not particularly confident that President Duterte will make a firm decision on the fate of the VFA before his term ends. I think more than likely, he will just let the next President take on this matter in his term,” he told BusinessWorld via email. 

“I think delaying the abrogation of the VFA, while at the same time insisting on his personal appeasement policy stand with regards to our troubles in the West Philippine Sea, is a delicate balancing act which he has been successful at doing. So why change tactics so close to the elections, right?” he added.

Renato C. de Castro, international studies professor at the De La Salle University, said there are chances that Mr. Duterte would again extend the suspension by another six months in November.

“It will be up to his successor to determine whether we will sign or of course do away with the visiting forces agreement. So, he’s leaving it to his successor,” he said in a phone interview.

Mr. De Castro said the President may have a “personal dislike” of the US, and he may be afraid the country would be dragged in a conflict between China and the US, but other factors come into play in making such policy decisions.

“On the other hand, he cannot simply terminate the agreement because the military and the foreign affairs department want to maintain the agreement,” he told BusinessWorld in a phone interview. “Because the military and of course the foreign affairs department are still wary of China.”

Mr. Yusingco cited other factors such as the need to strengthen diplomatic and trade relations with Asian neighbors as well as the pressure on the part of the government to assert national sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. 

“It is pretty clear that the foreign relations cluster of the administration is struggling with the evolving geopolitics in our region,” he said. “And the fact that it is being delayed indicates that our government does not have a coherent and firm foreign policy plan yet in light of the changing geopolitics in Asia.”

Meanwhile, Marlon M. Villarin, political science professor at the University of Santo Tomas, said the government is still studying the risk and opportunities of the pact.

He said the extensions on the suspension order “is a politically and diplomatically calibrated stance to bargain” their issues and concerns on the benefits from the VFA. 

Mr. Villarin also said that the extension would allow the executive and legislative branches to collaborate before the government decides on the VFA’s fate. “I think the President is playing a queen’s gambit to strategically ensure that should he decide to extend VFA, the Philippine government will practically benefit and that transparency and accountability issues that cloud VFA is addressed at the same time,” he said in a Viber message.

Mr. Duterte in February last year said he would terminate the agreement after the US Embassy canceled the visa of Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, one of his closest allies. 

He suspended the abrogation for six months in June 2020, noting the heightened tensions in the region and the global coronavirus pandemic. It was suspended again for another six months in December.   

Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel G. Romualdez said in a briefing early this month that the two countries have discussed how to improve the pact and the agreement is “kind of a bigger picture of our relationship, especially in our Mutual Defense Treaty.” — Vann Marlo M. Villegas