The Philippines could weaken its security shield as a South China Sea nation should Manila scrap a military pact with the United States as President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened, his foreign and defense secretaries said Thursday.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Defense Secretary both appeared for a hearing before the Philippine Senate’s foreign relations committee, as lawmakers questioned them about ending the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S, a security accord that took hold in 1999.

“Terminating the VFA would negatively impact the Philippines’ defense and security arrangements, as well as the overall bilateral relations of the Philippines with the United States and perhaps even on the subregional and multilateral level,” Locsin said.

The pact allows for large-scale joint military exercises between the two longtime allies after the United States vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, both located northwest of Manila – in the 1990s.

U.S. Marines take part in military exercises with their Philippine counterparts north of Manila, April 11, 2016.
U.S. Marines take part in military exercises with their Philippine counterparts north of Manila, April 11, 2016 (Photo: Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews)

In January, Duterte threatened to terminate the agreement unless Washington restored a U.S. visa it reportedly had cancelled for Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, the former national police chief who had enforced the president’s much-criticized drug war.

Last month, dela Rosa told reporters that the American embassy sent him a letter saying his visa was no longer valid. The letter gave no reason for the cancellation, he said. The U.S. State Department did not respond to emails seeking confirmation that dela Rosa’s visa had been revoked as well as a response to Duterte’s threat to cancel the military pact. The Pentagon had referred questions about the VFA to the State Department’s press office.

Locsin: Duterte did not seek advice

Duterte, as chief executive, had the right to express displeasure with another country, according to Locsin. But the president, Locsin conceded, did not seek his advice as the nation’s top diplomat before issuing his angry threat.

Without the Visiting Forces Agreement, Manila’s decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States would be like a “deflated balloon,” Locsin said. The treaty, signed in 1951, stipulates that both nations would support each during an attack by an external party.

“The absence of a VFA would result in [the] severe curtailment of defense engagements with the Philippines, and the cancellation of cooperative defense activities,” Locsin said, noting that the VFA had enabled Filipino troops to be trained to combat non-traditional threats, such as human trafficking, terrorism and illegal drugs.

American soldiers had also provided vital intelligence support in 2017 that enabled Philippine troops to defeat Islamic State (IS) militants who had taken over the southern city of Marawi for five months.

Manila has the “prerogative” to terminate the VFA at any time, Locsin said, emphasizing that “the continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any benefits were it to be terminated.”

He said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper had vowed that Washington would come to Manila’s aid during an external attack because of the Mutual Defense Treaty. But scrapping the VFA would “dilute [the] U.S. commitment,” Locsin said.

While Locsin did not mention any country, China has been locked in a bitter territorial dispute with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, which straddles vital shipping routes and is believed to lie atop rich mineral deposits.

Locsin said he had prepared the notice of termination for the VFA, but stopped short of sending it to Washington. He said he would only transmit it once he got a “personal order from the president and no one else.”

During his appearance before the committee on Thursday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines stood to lose vital military support should Duterte abrogate the VFA. Since 1998, the military had received $1 billion in military funding from the United States, he said.

Washington’s assistance to the Philippines had been “a big help” in combatting IS militants, Lorenzana said, adding that U.S. soldiers were also helpful during natural disasters.

“The U.S. forces are always there in times of calamities,” he said. But, he also said, “I think we do not need VFA indefinitely.”

According to Sen. Richard Gordon, a vice chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Duterte’s threat may have been ill-timed.

“Is it a national interest to abolish the VFA at this point?” he asked. “We don’t enter into an agreement just because we want to, but because we need to.”

Without the defense agreement, Gordon said, the Philippine military risked being “all air and no force, and all coast and no guard.”

“The people must know that our military has been bereft – leaving us dependent on our relationships with other countries,” he said. “Strengthen the military, enrich the country. We have to look at the interest of our nation.”