The Philippines Terminates Visiting Forces Agreement With US

On 11 February, the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr signed and sent to the US government the notice of termination of the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement. The Visiting Forces Agreement determines guidelines and conditions for US military personnel in the Philippines, as well as for Philippines military personnel visiting the US.

According to the text of the agreement, it is deemed terminated upon one party submitting its notice of termination. The termination of the agreement will then become effective 180 days after the submission, unless the termination is reversed or delayed. The agreement remains in force until the end of the countdown.

The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, had threatened on 23 January to terminate the agreement after the cancellation of the US visa of Senator Ronald dela Rosa. The Senator was Duterte’s first police chief, and the architect of Duterte’s war on drugs. Rights groups such as Amnesty International accuse the Philippine National Police of engaging in a campaign of extrajudicial executions of suspected drug users and sellers, including the planting of evidence on victims. Following service as the police chief, dela Rosa was appointed the Director General of the Bureau of Corrections, before successfully running for senator during the 2019 senatorial elections.

The US government has not stated any reason for the cancellation of the visa, but it is believed by some in the Philippines that his role in the drug war was what resulted in the cancellation. The US Senate passed Senate Resolution 142 in January, which called for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on members of the Philippines government and security forces responsible for extrajudicial killings. 

The termination of the agreement has met with criticism from other parts of the government. Justice Secretary, Menardo Guevara, told reporters that the termination of the VFA would render other defense pacts with the US “practically useless“, while noting that the Philippines will likely survive the termination of the VFA. Senate President Vicente Sotto III has expressed support for filing a petition with the Supreme Court of the Philippines as to whether Senate concurrence is required for the termination of the agreement to be legal. Two senior military officials have claimed that the military is against the cancellation, and that the decision was made despite Cabinet opposition.

US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, has described the termination of the agreement as a “move in the wrong direction“. President Donald Trump, however, felt differently, stating to reporters at the White House that “I don’t really mind if they would like to do that, it will save a lot of money“. 

While the termination of the VFA would be a major blow to US-Philippines military cooperation, it is difficult to see what the exact goal of the Philippines government is. While Duterte is known for courting China as President, presidential spokesman Salvador Panello expressed hope that US-Philippines ties will actually improve following the cancellation, stating that he noticed that “those who’ve been criticizing the US government policies have been given the preferential attention by the US government“. Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teddy Locsin Jr has similarly hinted at a possible renegotiation of the VFA, while urging those critical of the termination to “stop whining“. Whether these statements will translate into concrete action, however, remains to be seen.