Asia Pacific

Philippine leader terminates troop agreement with U.S.

AP, Bloomberg, Reuters

The Philippines on Tuesday notified the United States of its intent to terminate a major security pact allowing American forces to train in the country in the most serious threat to the countries’ treaty alliance under President Rodrigo Duterte.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a tweet Manila’s notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement was received by the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He refused to provide other details on the drastic step “as a diplomatic courtesy.”

Locsin signed the notice on orders of Duterte, who has often criticized U.S. security policies while praising those of China and Russia despite the Philippine military’s close historic ties with its American counterpart.

“Trump, and the others, are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. I said, I don’t want it,” Duterte said according to the official transcript of a speech in Manila on Monday night.

The Philippines’ leader has previously questioned whether the U.S. would defend the Philippines if China seizes disputed shoals and reefs in the South China Sea — skepticism that has persisted in the Southeast Asian nation for decades. Beijing has built several artificial structure in the Spratly Islands where Manila also has claims. Philippine fishermen and vessels resupplying Philippine-occupied features in the waters have also been harassed by Chinese ships.

Defense ties between the Philippines and former colonial ruler the United States go back to the early 1950s and are governed by a Mutual Defence Treaty, which remains intact, along with an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement made under the Obama administration.

Duterte made the decision after the top commander of his war on drugs, former police chief Ronald dela Rosa, said his U.S. visa had been rescinded over an issue related to the detention of a senator and top critic of Duterte.

The VFA, signed in 1998, accords legal status to thousands of U.S. troops rotated in the country for humanitarian assistance and military exercises, dozens of which take place annually.

It is the first time Duterte has scrapped an agreement with the United States, having throughout his more than three years in office denounced Washington for hypocrisy and for treating the Philippines “like a dog on a leash.”

Despite reassurances from his generals, Duterte has long accused U.S. forces of conducting clandestine activities. In his speech on Monday, he said U.S. nuclear weapons were being stored in his country.

He has argued that the presence of U.S. forces makes the Philippines a potential target for aggression.

In a Senate hearing last week, Locsin warned that abrogating the security accord with Washington would undermine Philippine security and foster aggression in the disputed South China Sea. U.S. military presence in the strategic waterway has been seen as a crucial counterweight to China, which has claimed virtually the entire sea.

Locsin proposed a review of the agreement to fix contentious issues instead of abrogating it. Philippine defense and military officials did not immediately issue any reaction to the government move.

The termination of the 1999 agreement would take effect 180 days after Washington received Manila’s notice but both could decide to keep the pact during the waiting period, Philippine officials said.