Who lost when Duterte ended the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)?


Many expressed alarm when President Rodrigo Roa Duterte ordered his foreign affairs secretary TeddyBoy Locsin to send a letter to the U.S. ambassador expressing the Republic’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). One of three agreements which make up the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) forged between the US and the Philippines, the VFA basically establishes a set of jurisdictional guidelines for the conduct of US troops stationed here during annual military exercises. The agreement likewise led to the annual conduct of the Balikatan exercises which is consistent with the principles of “self-help” and “mutual aid” as stated in the Mutual Defense Treaty which both countries signed in 1952. Without the VFA, what consequences, if any, the agreement’s abrogation would, on both countries?

First, let’s recognize that the VFA is not the one which basically provides the legal basis for US troop visits in the Philippines—it is the MDT of 1952. The VFA was crafted in response to allegations made by Philippine civil society that several US personnel escaped Philippine criminal jurisdiction during their stays here under the Mutual Bases Agreement (MBA). When the MBA was terminated by the Philippine senate in 1990, both governments came into an agreement that a whittled down version of the MBA be created to clarify jurisdictional claims over erring US personnel.  

Would the termination prevent US troops from entering and using Philippine military bases? No. There is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA which the Supreme Court in 2016, deemed constitutional. The EDCA is the one which allows US military personnel and troops to use or maintain presence in several locations allowed by the Philippine government, specifically the Department of Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). There is simply no basis for Malacanan to say that they effectively prevented foreign troops from their interference with the sovereignty of the country because US troops can still enter and leave the country’s shores anytime they want to. 

Some say that with the termination of the VFA, the EDCA being a “supplemental agreement” is also deemed terminated. This is clearly not so. The EDCA is different from the VFA as it enhances defense cooperation between the US and the Philippines through “improving interoperability of the two country’s armed forces, promoting long-term modernization, helping maintain and develop maritime security, and expanding humanitarian assistance.” Unlike the VFA, the EDCA is renewed every ten years. 

With the absence now of the VFA, what would happen then with American military personnel stationed in Manila and elsewhere? Without the VFA, any personnel now would be treated as members of the diplomatic corps and therefore, safe from the reach of Philippine authorities. Who is then in a more precarious and more vulnerable position? Surely, it is the Philippine government. There would be no more mechanism by which Filipino authorities would use in case of claims made by aggrieved Filipinos against US personnel, since there is now, no existing set of guidelines between the US and the Philippines. Diplomatic corps members are not subject to the laws of the country where they are stationed—they enjoy immunity from criminal and civil liabilities.

The termination also placed in limbo, the status of Filipinos now in the US undertaking military cooperation visits. These Filipinos should now be expatriated because of the absence of a VFA. What happens now to these annual “technology transfers” which have assisted in the AFP in its modernization efforts?

Don’t get me wrong— Duterte is right in saying that it is time for the Philippines to develop its own military capabilities. Realities however, should have been considered before Duterte opened his mouth. 

Our entire defense system is Western-oriented, how can Duterte claim that we can exist entirely on our own? Desirous to shift towards China or Russia orientation when your entire system is of a different make and mold? Even the very doctrine which members of the AFP stake their lives on is entirely different. Such a plan, if it is even the direction which Duterte wants the AFP to take, is ludicrous and costly. It is crazy because it calls for the total change not just in armaments but of the doctrinal pillars which the AFP rest on. It is costly because even the mere communications infrastructure of the AFP would change the minute Duterte pushes on his hair-brained scheme. That alone, cost billions of pesos. 

Now, the juiciest part of this article—did the Philippine government’s decision to terminate the VFA changed the balance of power in the Pacific? Not at all because quite frankly, the USA does not need us. Modern warfare does not anymore contemplate the stationing of permanent troops in a particular area. Mobility is the dominant doctrine right now. The US has a plethora of US carriers and has a sophisticated defense space system that has the capability to strike their enemy anywhere. For years, bases in foreign countries with US troops serve as rest and recreation places. The US does not need to deploy missiles in the Philippines just to serve warning to the encroaching Chinese forces to back off. 

Our people must be informed that what Duterte did in terminating the VFA was entirely not because of patriotism or based on sound study of existing geopolitical realities. It was a knee-jerk reaction by a petty government official now acting as President but with a tiny weeny brain to boot. Thinking that it would hit two birds with just one sweeping act (portray him as a nationalist while inflicting harm against US personnel), Duterte instead unilaterally swept aside that one agreement which protects Filipinos from erring US personnel. 

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