Duterte keeps VFA after getting 'clarity' on US commitment to defense treaty

The Philippines' military alliance with the United States remained intact after President Duterte reconsidered an earlier decision to scrap the visiting forces agreement (VFA) on the final year of his presidency.

President Rodrigo Duterte rescinds an earlier decision to scrap the visiting forces agreement with the United States following a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III in Malacañang on July 29, 2021. (Malacañang)

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque explained that the President's decision to keep the VFA was reached after getting the US commitment to regard the Philippines as a "sovereign equal" and reaffirm its obligation under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

“PRRD’s decision to recall the abrogation of VFA is based on upholding PH strategic core interests, the clear definition of PH-US alliance as one between sovereign equals, and clarity of US position on its obligations and commitments under MDT,” Roque said in a statement Friday, July 30.

Under the MDT, the Philippines and United States agreed to come to each other’s aid in case of an armed attack in the Pacific Area.

The President recently expressed doubts that the United States would risk its troops to defend the Philippines in case it is under attack amid the territorial dispute with China. Duterte, in his sixth and final State of the Nation Address Monday, claimed that the United States often declared its non-interference policy when it comes to boundaries of countries.

READ: US seeks strong ties with PH as ‘equal sovereign partner,’ Pentagon chief tells Duterte

The President’s decision to recall the VFA termination came following his “open and frank” meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III on strengthening security cooperation in Malacañang on Thursday. Duterte and Austin have agreed to forge closer PH-US cooperation on fighting the pandemic, illegal drugs and other transnational crimes, among others, during their meeting.

Despite recalling the VFA termination, the Philippines remained open to forging security alliances with other nations.

Roque said the Philippines would “continue to engage other countries for partnerships that work, based on our core national interests.”

Last Wednesday, the President met with the Pentagon Chief at the Palace where they both agreed on boosting defense relations between the two longtime allies. Austin, on a two-day visit to Manila since Thursday, assured Duterte that the United States wanted a strong relationship with the Philippines as a “equal sovereign partner.”

The Palace said Duterte and Austin “agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particular in the areas of pandemic response, combatting transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments.”

The President earlier sought to scrap the VFA over concerns about its supposed unequal provisions. The VFA, signed between Manila and Washington in 1998, spells out the guidelines and legal status of US troops when visiting the Philippines. It also affirms the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperate Agreement that allows US soldiers to conduct joint exercises with Filipino troops.

The abrogation of the military pact however has been suspended for more than a year now due to the pandemic and other global development. Duterte even told the United States to pay if it wanted to retain the VFA with the country.

The President's relations with the United States have been strained amid his grievances over its alleged inferior treatment of the Philippines, which is supposed to be its longtime strategic ally. He said he wanted to review the VFA after noticing that American merely treated the country as an “early warning detachment.”

READ: Duterte: United States treats PH as 'inferior,' an 'early warning detachment'