Philippines fully restores key troop pact with US

Agreement allows rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana after a meeting in Manila. AFP
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President Rodrigo Duterte has restored a pact governing the presence of US troops in the Philippines, the two countries' defence ministers said on Friday, reversing a decision that was causing concern in Washington and Manila.

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises. It assumes additional importance as the United States and its allies contend with an increasingly assertive China.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was unsure why Mr Duterte had reversed his stance but made the decision after meeting US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Manila on Thursday.

Mr Duterte's decision will not change much on the ground because the pact had not yet been terminated, but it provides stability for both countries.

“This provides certainty for us going forward, we can do long-range planning and do different types of exercises,” Mr Austin said.

The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA.

Mr Duterte said he would terminate the pact after the US denied a visa to a Filipino senator who is an ally of the president. But he repeatedly pushed back the expiration date, the last time last month, maintaining it until the end of the year.

For the US, having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defence of the Philippines, but strategically when it comes to countering China's assertive behaviour in the region.

"[Mr Duterte's decision] opens up significant possibilities for strengthening the alliance that were otherwise closed,” said Greg Poling, who is with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

There are long-standing tensions between the Philippines and China over disputed waters in the South China Sea.

The US this month repeated a warning to China that an attack on Philippine forces in the South China Sea would trigger a 1951 US-Philippines mutual defence treaty.

There are, however, still questions about Mr Duterte's unpredictability.

“Some of the celebration is premature … [the agreement] will continue to be under threat so long as Duterte remains president,” said Aaron Connelly, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Philippine presidential elections are scheduled for 2022 and while Mr Duterte is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election, his party has been encouraging him to again run for office, as vice president.

Updated: July 30, 2021, 5:20 AM