Philippines Aims To Terminate Troop Agreement With U.S.

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 11:52 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The government of the Philippines has officially given notice to the United States. It is terminating a two-decades-old visiting forces agreement that allows the U.S. military to operate on Philippine soil. This notice, sent to the U.S. Embassy in Manila today, ended weeks of speculation about whether President Rodrigo Duterte would follow through on his threat.

And we're joined by NPR's Julie McCarthy in our bureau in Manila. Hi, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: Good morning. OK. So Duterte is saying he wants U.S. troops out. The Philippines - I mean, hasn't it been a traditional ally of the United States over the years? What is happening here?

MCCARTHY: Yes, it has. But what you have now is this culmination of Duterte's chronic complaint about what he says is a disrespectful United States. He threatened to terminate this agreement after Washington reportedly denied his former national police chief a visa for the U.S. Now, that same police chief also enforced Duterte's bloody drug war when it began in 2016. Thousands of mostly poor drug suspects have been killed. Now, the Obama administration got alarmed about that and said so. The Duterte administration chafed under that, and now Duterte thinks this is happening all over again. So ending this agreement that allows U.S. troops to be here easily is another way of saying, you're interfering in my country and you're not welcome here.

GREENE: I mean, that sounds blunt. What could that message tell us about where this relationship is headed?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's a real signal, actually. There is a definite shift underway here. Duterte has made clear he intends to pivot away from his country's traditional ally, the United States, and lean towards China. He says they will assist us without questioning our internal affairs. He calls China a friend, the rising regional power - which it is. And Duterte seems comfortable with the Philippines existing in a China-centric regional order.

And we may be witnessing this U.S.-Philippine partnership that's a century old come unspooled, and it makes people nervous. Duterte's own foreign secretary Teddy Locsin said - before he sent the notice to the U.S. Embassy today - that ending this agreement, which is called the VFA, is a bad idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TEDDY LOCSIN JR: Terminating the VFA will negatively impact the Philippines' defense and security arrangements as well as the overall bilateral relations of the Philippines with the U.S. and perhaps even on the subregional and multilateral level. Our contribution to regional defense is anchored on our military alliance with the world's last superpower.

MCCARTHY: Well, obviously that advice is not something Duterte chose to take. The U.S. Embassy just said, look, ending this agreement is a serious step with significant implications for the alliance.

GREENE: I'm just amazed that Duterte's own foreign secretary is saying - bad idea, but I'm going to carry it out for you because I have no choice.

MCCARTHY: That's right.

GREENE: How serious are the implications? Like, what were U.S. forces in the Philippines doing under this agreement?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, mostly I think it has to do with sort of bearing - grounding this relationship in what has been an old, established ally. You know, historically, the U.S. had two huge bases here, a naval and an air base. They're long closed. But today there is a joint special operations task force to help the Philippine armed forces fight Islamist terrorism in the southern Philippines. There's about 200 advisers.

Now, what happens to them under this agreement now, it's been suggested that they have 180 days to figure that out. In fact, they do have 180 days to figure that out. And some believe that perhaps Duterte is really not interested in blowing up the alliance but rather renegotiating this security arrangement.

GREENE: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Manila.

Julie, thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.