MS Risk Blog

Hedging Between Great Powers & the VFA

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Of all the Southeast Asian states the Philippines has traditionally been one of the closest to the United States. Since decolonisation in 1946 the country has remained on friendly terms with the US, acting as an outpost during the Vietnam War, and maintaining a US military presence ever since. While neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia are happy to cooperate with the United States in private to combat issues like terrorism, the Philippines has been happy to play the role of close ally in public.

A symbol of this partnership is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The VFA was brought in in 1999, and it essentially gives all United States military personnel based in the country diplomatic immunity unless the US authorities decide that person should be subject to local laws. The law has resulted in a number of controversies, most notably the Subic rape case, where four US troops were acquitted of raping a Filipino woman in 2006.

The VFA made headlines again in early 2020 when President Duterte said that it would not be renewed. Since 2017 Duterte has been trying to rebalance a perceived over-reliance on the United States by building closer ties to China. These ties have at times included discussion, amongst other things, intelligence sharing. Duterte also prefers China’s policy of refusing to comment on their ally’s internal politics. A closer alliance with China therefore could provide him with political cover internally, as well as resources, trade, and weapons from their northern neighbour.

However, the Philippines ongoing dispute with China over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea has complicated this shift and appears to have forced Duterte to keep the VFA and try to find a balance between China and the United States. Back in March, 220 Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels were placed at the Whitsun Reef. This ignited a number of retaliatory measures, including overflights by the Philippine Air Force, a rebuke from the U.S. National Security Advisor, and both the Philippine and U.S. navies moving parts of their fleet into the region.

This shows the complicated path the Philippines, and other countries in the region, are winding between the China and the United States. On one hand, China will provide investment, resources, and no interference in local politics. But on the other, many ASEAN countries, the Philippines included fear China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and its expansive ambitions. The United States, however, presents a different challenge. Increased interaction with the US could lead to high-profile political criticism, especially on Duterte’s human rights record, and potentially even sanctions. But it is a lot less likely the US will stake a claim to any island chains in the region.

Duterte for now has agreed to extend the VFA. But it remains to be seen if he will change his mind again. It is highly likely China will continue to reinforce their various claims on the Paracel and Spratly islands, unless the ASEAN countries can form a unified response. So, if China do wish to build better relations with the Philippines and in turn reduce the US’s presence in the region, they will need to find another way to forge a stronger relationship with the Southeast Asian nation. In turn, if the US wishes to maintain their relationship with the Philippines while Duterte is in charge it is likely there will be a reduction in official criticism of his government coming from Washington.