Last week, after hinting at it for some time, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced he would terminate a key military pact with the United States. The Visiting Forces Agreement, in place for two decades, allows Washington to keep rotations of American soldiers in the Philippines. As Richard Heydarian has noted, the deal also provides a legal basis for the numerous annual joint military exercises between U.S. and Philippines forces. Tearing it up is the biggest break in bilateral relations at least since Manila forced Washington to give up its Philippine bases in 1991 and 1992. Some analysts, like Heydarian, go further, suggesting it essentially signals the end of the decades-old U.S.-Philippine alliance.
President Donald Trump claimed he didn’t care after the Philippine leader made the break. “I don’t really mind if they would like to do that,” he said after Duterte’s announcement, “it will save a lot of money.” But Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called it “unfortunate.”
Although Duterte often makes bold statements and then recants, he appears determined to go through with this one. He has harbored anti-American sentiments for decades and has grown increasingly infuriated with Washington in the past year. But while Duterte proclaims that shifting away from the U.S., and toward China, will improve the Philippines’ strategic position, axing the Visiting Forces Agreement carries bigger risks for Manila than for Washington. The Philippines’ own defense establishment remains extremely worried about China’s regional strategy and may try to block Duterte. The wider public will also be skeptical. Duterte may still be extremely popular with Filipinos, but Beijing decidedly is not.