VFA: Philippines says it will not end US military access deal amid tensions in South China Sea

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Loxin Jr. said in a post on social media on Tuesday that President Rodrigo Duterte had decided to uphold the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in light of the region’s political and other developments.

The agreement, signed in 1988, allows U.S. military aircraft and ships free entry into the Philippines and relaxes visa restrictions for U.S. military personnel.

The Philippine government has given the United States 180 days to complete the deal in February, suggesting that Manila need to rely on its own agency to defend itself. On Tuesday, the U.S. welcomed the change of heart.

“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries and we look forward to continuing close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” a statement from the US Embassy in Manila said.

The Philippines once had two of the largest U.S. military bases outside the United States: Clark Air Base and the former Bay Naval Station.

Although they ceased to be U.S. bases in the early 1990’s, U.S. forces entered under their VFA and maintained strong military ties with Washington in Manila.

Over the past few years, however, Duterte has distanced himself from historical ties with the United States and China, which have suggested closer economic ties with Manila.

“I need China. I need China more than anyone else right now,” Duterte said before leaving for China in April 2018.

Compared to its predecessors, Duarte sees the Philippines’ ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea as more negotiable.

Both the Philippines and China are among several countries with claims of overlapping in or part of the sea. China claims that all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea remain on its own, despite having very close borders to the disputed waters.

Last year, Duarte said he was offered a controlling part in a joint energy deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping instead of ignoring an international arbitration in favor of Manila in the South China Sea.
In 2016, a tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, finding that China had no legal basis to claim historic historical rights over much of the South China Sea.

Manila also claims that China is increasing its military presence in the islands.

In the past two months, the People’s Liberation Army has removed advanced submarine warfare and reconnaissance aircraft near the Fairy Cross Reef, known as Cagittingan in the Philippines, in the chain of the Spratly Islands.

Beijing has also created a shining cross portion of its southern Hainan province, with two new administrative districts covering the South China Sea, the headquarters of the Parasil Islands, another archipelago with controversial claims.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China maintains the presence of maritime militia ships in the vicinity of Thitu Island, the largest island occupied by the Philippines, the largest of the Spratly Islands.

According to an AMTI satellite analysis released in March, an average of 16 Chinese ships have been stationed around the island, disrupting Philippine efforts to build infrastructure there.

On Wednesday, Luxin indicated that the Philippines sees the United States playing a role in the region for parts of the Philippines.

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States to build a common defense with our regional allies to build a common defense towards our stability, peace and continued economic progress and prosperity with the world,” he said.

Sophie Zheng of CNN contributed to this report.

About the author: Dale Freeman

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