Philippines Leaning Toward Allowing U.S. Troops After All
But the Biden administration still faces an unreliable ally in Duterte.
For five years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to terminate the agreement that allows U.S. troops a presence in the Philippines. But senior Philippine officials have privately told U.S. diplomats that the government in Manila does not really wish to renegotiate the deal that helps underpin the U.S. troop presence there, a potential break for the Biden administration with a key ally in its drive to counter China, especially in the Western Pacific.
The admission, revealed in a report sent by the State Department to Congress in February and obtained by Foreign Policy, is a sign that the Biden administration likely has some breathing room in its up-and-down relationship with Manila. Last year, the Philippines gave the United States formal notification that it planned to end the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which gives the United States jurisdiction over American troops temporarily stationed there, after U.S. officials declined to issue a visa to a close Duterte ally. Duterte, a mercurial populist leader who has flirted with China, has threatened to cancel the pact since he was sworn in as president in 2016.
The Trump administration previously managed to stop the clock on the termination of the deal, which backstops the post-World War II treaty alliance between the United States and the Philippines. It addresses everything including U.S. troops’ entry to and exit from the country, and how they will be handled if they break local laws. Sources familiar with the talks now expect a deal to be made before May, when the stopgap deal signed under former U.S. President Donald Trump is slated to expire. Even a handshake deal would avoid U.S. forces having to clear out by August—though it may not be a long-term agreement.
“The most likely outcome is another extension,” a former defense official with knowledge of the talks told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Duterte realizes that having these six-month extensions keeps us over a barrel and limits how critical we would be of his human rights record and any other shortcomings he may have, knowing that he can terminate the pause.”
Philippine defense and foreign affairs officials offer plenty of assurances about the status of U.S. forces. But in Washington, officials are still wary of being at the mercy of Duterte’s short-term extensions, even though he will have to leave office after next year, and he first walked back plans to abrogate the deal last year.
Despite repeatedly extending the window for talks, Duterte has continued to apply pressure, stating that the United States would “have to pay” to get the VFA done. “It’s a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free, because after all when the war breaks out, we all pay,” Duterte said in February at Clark Air Base, which was once operated by the U.S. Air Force.
The U.S. presence at Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark, both near Manila, was critical in the years before World War II and again during the Vietnam War. Though that formal presence has been gone for nearly three decades, since the Philippines abrogated the basing agreements in 1992, it has taken on a new urgency for the United States. China’s aggressive posture, including the Chinese navy mooring swarms of supposed fishing vessels around Whitsun Reef, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, has underscored the importance of the defense agreement, according to former defense officials.
Former officials and experts said the United States is not looking to have thousands of troops stationed in the Philippines again, but the archipelago sits at a vital crossroads of maritime traffic and remains a potential jumping-off point for the U.S. Defense Department to deal with a contingency around Taiwan or elsewhere inside the so-called first island chain that runs from Japan down to the South China Sea.
“The thing that the U.S. has not been clear about is just how much the Philippines and access to the Philippines is critical to the Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Greg Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Without the Philippines, at best you’re saying you have a strategy for countering Chinese [anti-access capabilities] in East Asia and Micronesia, but you have no strategy for the South China Sea.”
Former Trump administration officials had advocated for doing more to build up the firepower of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-country bloc that includes the Philippines and Thailand, another U.S. treaty ally, including adding more anti-ship capabilities and deepening intelligence sharing. Washington also eyed construction projects in the western Palawan islands of the Philippines before Duterte’s rise put those plans on ice.
But a failure to secure a new arrangement would likely halt the U.S. military’s ambitions for the Philippines, including plans for 300 exercises between Philippine forces and the Pentagon this year alone, forcing the Biden administration to focus on a potential quick withdrawal of American forces. A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that U.S. and Philippine representatives are conducting “virtual working-level discussions on the alliance” as part of regular consultation between the allies.
If “efforts to maintain the VFA are unsuccessful, focus would need to shift immediately to the retrograde of personnel, materiel, and equipment,” the State Department reported to Congress in February. And that means that all the forces that currently support bilateral security cooperation would be on their way out the door through August, the State Department said.
The impacts would be felt up and down the relationship. The absence of legal protections given to U.S. forces under the deal “would likely cause the United States to remove its personnel from the Philippines,” the State Department report said, limiting the ability of the Pentagon to respond to a crisis, typhoons, or flare-ups with terrorist groups, such as the deadly 2017 siege of Marawi that lasted five months. The report said that termination of the VFA could also “endanger” the $1.5 billion sale to the Philippines of Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets.
Pentagon and State Department officials met with their Philippine counterparts in February, focusing largely on how both sides interpret and implement the deal. But there is long-standing heartburn on the American side dating back to the 1992 closure of Subic Bay, at one point the Navy’s largest overseas base. And President Joe Biden, who has pledged to return human rights to the forefront of American foreign policy, faces a challenge in dealing with Duterte, whose violent crackdown on drugs has raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington.
“Fixing the text of the agreement will not make this problem go away,” Poling said. “You do need some political breakthrough and that’s harder with the tightrope that Biden has to walk with the Duterte government. They can’t ignore him, because it’s your oldest alliance in Asia and it’s drifting away.”
But it will be tough for the new administration to grit its teeth through the final year of Duterte’s administration, which has seen the Philippines run up a long rap sheet of human rights violations that include a spate of police killings and impunity for authorities, often encouraged by the maverick president, who maintains a long list of suspected drug traffickers inside the Philippine establishment, the State Department said in its annual human rights review released last month.
The United States also has as many as 300 troops in Zamboanga, in the southern Philippines, who support the counterterrorism mission in the region with drones, intelligence, and recovery operations as Manila fights against Islamic State-aligned forces who are highly enmeshed with the local population—something that could be jeopardized by the expiration of the VFA.
And even though officials don’t expect Duterte to ax the deal before he departs in 2022, the Biden administration will still have to figure out how to deal with an unreliable ally who has openly courted China.
“He’s crazy as fuck,” said a former senior Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how they’re going to deal with him, but they’ve got to. That guy just summarily executes people he doesn’t like. It’s going to be like our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch