Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has restored a crucial pact governing the presence of US troops in the Southeast Asian country, defense ministers of the two countries said on Friday, overturning a decision that had raised growing concern in Washington. and in Manila.
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops inside and outside the Philippines for drills and war drills. It has taken on added significance as the United States and its allies confront an increasingly assertive China.
Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said he was unsure why Duterte had overturned, but made the decision after meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Manila on Thursday.
Harry Roque, spokesman for Duterte, later said the president’s decision was “based on maintaining the central strategic interest of the Philippines … and clarity of the US position on its obligations and commitments under the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) “.
Duterte’s decision will not change much on the ground as the pact had not been terminated, but it does ensure the stability of the two countries.
“It gives us certainty for the future, we can do long-term planning and do different types of exercises,” Austin said at a press conference with his Filipino counterpart.
The Philippines is an ally of the United States and several military agreements depend on the VFA.
Duterte vowed to end the pact after the United States denied a visa to a Filipino senator who is an ally of the president. But he had repeatedly pushed the expiration date back, the last time last month, now until the end of the year.
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For the United States, having the ability to rotate troops is important not only for the defense of the Philippines, but strategically when it comes to countering China’s assertive behavior in the region.
“(Duterte’s decision) opens up important possibilities to strengthen the alliance that was otherwise closed,” said Greg Poling, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
There are long-standing tensions between the Philippines and China over the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The United States this month repeated a warning to China that an attack on Philippine forces in the South China Sea would trigger a mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines in 1951.
However, questions remain about Duterte’s unpredictability.
“Part of the celebration is premature … (the VFA) will continue to be threatened as long as Duterte remains president,” said Aaron Connelly, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Philippine presidential elections are slated for 2022 and although Duterte is not constitutionally allowed for re-election, his party has encouraged him to run for vice president again.