Duterte won’t scrap military pact with US despite prior threats, Philippines defense minister says during Pentagon chief’s visit

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to retain a long-standing deal to keep US forces in the country after repeatedly vowing to end it, his defense minister said after meeting with his American counterpart, Lloyd Austin.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the move on Friday, saying Duterte wouldn’t jettison the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington, but added that he was unsure why the president had reversed his course. 

“The VFA is in full force again after Secretary Austin’s meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte,” the defense head told reporters. 

Speaking alongside Lorenzana at Friday’s press conference, Defense Secretary Austin said the decision “provides certainty” for Washington going forward, and would permit better “long-range planning,” including for “different types of exercises.”

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Effective since 1999, the pact lays out rules for the rotation of thousands of American troops stationed in the Philippines, as well as for regular military exercises and wargames held there. Washington has come to see the VFA as more significant as it increasingly turns its sights on Beijing, with the Pentagon fielding an arsenal of warships in the region and conducting periodic ‘freedom of navigation’ missions amid a broader US push to confront the People’s Republic.

While Duterte informed the US Embassy in the Philippines of his intent to end the VFA back in February 2020, voicing rage over a US visa ban slapped on a political ally, he has swung back and forth on the decision ever since. A full year after his initial announcement, he said he would keep the pact as long as the US would pay for it, though later backtracked on that demand as well.

As of last month, Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the president had decided to hold off on killing the VFA for another six months. That announcement came after Duterte met with his ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, who has spearheaded talks with Washington on the agreement. The envoy voiced hopes at the time that the VFA would be “improved,” noting that he was “very confident that it will pull through.”

Given Duterte’s vacillating stance on the issue over more than a year, however, Friday’s announcement is no guarantee the VFA will endure. A presidential race set for May 2022 adds yet more uncertainty over the future of the pact. Though he is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, members of Duterte’s PDP–Laban party have urged him to run for the VP slot, according to Reuters, raising the possibility he could retain some political sway even after the end of his term.

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