President Rodrigo Duterte’s push to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement is seen to further escalate tension and give China the upper hand in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), which is believed to hold huge oil and natural gas deposits.
Georgetown University professor Oriana Skylar Mastro warned that 2020 would be a year of intensifying security competition between China and the US as both are willing to take greater risks to gain advantage. “It is only a matter of time before this security competition in the South China Sea spills over into a crisis,” she said.
Duterte recently called for an end to the VFA between the Philippines and the US as he expressed outrage over Washington’s cancellation of the US visa of former police chief and incumbent Sen. Ronald de la Rosa. This is seen as part of the US crackdown on human rights violators.
Former Philippine ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia Jr. said this would likely embolden China in further militarizing disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea. The territories span mineral-rich areas such as Recto Bank which reportedly holds more natural gas than Malampaya field in Palawan.
“It will embolden China even more considering even with the MDT [Military Defense Treaty], the VFA, they have militarized those three reefs they grabbed from the Philippines,” Cuisia said.
“The visa dispute was something that can be addressed through diplomatic channels as Washington would be open for a review and a renegotiation of the VFA,” Cuisia said.
Military analyst and historian Jose Custodio said the VFA was most essential in allowing the Philippines and US to carry out obligations under MDT which has been considered a deterrent to China’s aggressive tactics against claimant states in the South China Sea.
The Senate and House of Representatives also expressed alarm over Duterte’s threats to end the VFA, calling it a “knee-jerk” reaction to de la Rosa’s canceled visa.
“A US visa is a conditional authorization granted to a foreigner. It may be canceled without explanation or justification. The VFA is a bilateral agreement between the PH and US that went through some careful and diplomatic discussion,” Senator Panfilo Lacson said.
“We say we can do it on our own, but when China’s militia―I’m directly calling it a militia―rammed a [Philippine] vessel and just left it, there was nothing we could do,” Senator Richard Gordon said.
A known ally of Duterte, Deputy Speaker Johnny Pimentel, at a House committee hearing on foreign relations asked, “Are we going to sacrifice the gains that we have made with the US-Philippine relationship just because of the cancellation of the visa of one senator?”
Pimentel noted the Philippine government’s seeming double standard in calling out travel restrictions after it stayed silent on Beijing’s decision to bar former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario from entering Hong Kong in July 2019.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., at a Senate inquiry about the Philippines’ military pacts with the US, stressed before the senators the importance of maintaining an alliance with the United States.
Locsin said the VFA had served as a deterrent to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea; facilitated assistance in huge disasters; helped the Philippine military modernize and combat terror, and promoted economic ties not only with the US but its allies.
He pushed for a review of the VFA, rather than its outright revocation.