Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
In his fourth year in office, President Duterte abrogated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. This is perhaps the realization of what he declared as his “independent foreign policy” at the start of his presidency.
For many observers, however, the untimely abrogation and seemingly irrational reasons behind the drastic decision of the commander in chief have only endangered the Philippines’ national security.
The historical contribution of the United States to the country and the wider Asia-Pacific is not only in terms of investments, jobs, infrastructure and aid, but also in maintaining regional peace and stability. The United States provides a certain gravity on which multilateral alliances could be built with our Asia-Pacific neighbors.
Terminating the VFA is obviously connected to Mr. Duterte’s expressed pivot to China. Professed as an “independent foreign policy,” it’s more like a kowtow to China, a foreign country now occupying Philippine territory. The abrogation changes the South China Sea scenario, creating an opportunity for China’s expansionist objectives to succeed. It has damaged the Philippines’ credibility in honoring alliance agreements. While Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam are standing up against Chinese aggression, the Philippine government has adopted a posture of weakness and acquiescence.
Mr. Duterte’s move to cut the US military alliance also directly disrespects the sentiments and perceptions of Filipinos. The Pulse Asia survey for the third quarter of 2019 revealed that 84 percent of Filipinos trust the United States, while only 25 percent trust China. Filipinos also trust other nations more than China—Australia (75 percent), Japan (73 percent), and South Korea (60 percent).
Asked which country-to-country relationship is more important, the SWS survey in the same period showed that an overwhelming 78 percent of Filipinos chose “relationship with the United States” as more important, while only 25 percent chose “relationship with China.”
Further, the VFA abrogation means virtually abandoning the territories occupied by China, an issue that Filipinos feel strongly about. According to the SWS June 2019 survey, on the issue of “getting back control of the islands currently occupied by China in the West Philippine Sea,” a near-unanimous 93 percent of Filipinos said this is important. In the same survey, 89 percent responded that it is “not right” to “leave China along with its infrastructures and military presence in the claimed territories,” while only 11 percent said it is “right.”
In resolving this conflict, 83 percent responded that it is “right” to “refer the issue to international organizations like the UN or Asean for a diplomatic and peaceful negotiation with China about the claimed territories.” And 84 percent said it is “right” to “form alliances with other countries that are ready to help us in defending our security in the West Philippine Sea.”
Public opinion definitely matters, especially if what is at stake is Philippine security and the future of generations to come. So, where do we go from here?
We are being confronted by an aggressively expansionist neighbor. With Mr. Duterte canceling the VFA, we stand to lose our only military ally, the top military power in the world. The ongoing modernization of the country’s Armed Forces to a credible level of defensive capability has a long way to go, and losing the support it receives from the United States is a serious setback that presents real risks to national security. With no military aid from Washington, the immediate consequence will be the additional burden on the government’s finances and the possible imposition of more taxes for the modernization and maintenance of our defense capabilities.
It is still less than six months before the VFA becomes officially terminated. President Duterte’s advisers should impress on him the serious consequences of his decision. Legislators can also do their part by speaking up against the abrogation of the VFA. We must call on our government to forge meaningful alliances with countries that respect and abide by the rule of law, as a deterrent force against aggressive behavior that can disrupt the stability of the region.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: Ted Aljibe / AFP Via Getty Images.