Philippine President Duterte’s decision to terminate his country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with its former American colonizer shows that Manila is strongly standing up for its sovereignty and domestic security. The outspoken leader had threatened this course of action if the US went through with its plans to cancel the visa of his former national police chief Senator Ronald Fela Rosa on the grounds that he allegedly committed grave human rights abuses by leading the ongoing war on drugs.
The US has largely been critical of the way in which this anti-narcotics campaign has been waged, accusing the Philippines of recklessly encouraging “vigilante justice” that’s since resulted in the loss of over 5,000 lives, with some unofficial estimates reaching as high as 12,000 or more. In his defense, President Duterte has consistently claimed that this law enforcement push was long overdue and was being handled responsibly by the competent authorities in order to avoid any innocent casualties.
Regardless of how external powers and some opposition groups might feel about President Duterte’s passionate anti-drug campaign, it’s ultimately within his legal right as the country’s leader per its constitution to set the Philippines’ national security agenda. Foreign meddling of the kind that the US has resorted to through the cancellation of Senator Rosa’s visa is a violation of the country’s sovereignty and a clear sign that Washington is increasing the pressure that it’s putting upon Manila to curtail its domestic security program.
The US has the right to voice its concerns — whether real, fake, or exaggerated — about the Philippines’ war on drugs, but targeting the officials responsible for it as a means of coercing the government to reconsider its course of action is troubling because it reminds the country of its former status as an American colony. Being the proud patriot that he is, President Duterte wasn’t going to tolerate this egregious display of neo-colonialism without imposing meaningful consequences on the US in order to get it to be the one to reconsider its policies.
The planned termination of the VFA in the next half-year could greatly reduce the US’ military footprint in Southeast Asia and along the edge of the contentious South China Sea where it’s been stirring up trouble against China over the past couple of years. The mutual defense treaty between the two states would still remain in tact, but American servicemen wouldn’t be able to train in the country, thus eliminating the several unofficial bases that it has there.
The US regularly “rotates” troops in and out of Philippine facilities in order to not have a “permanent” presence there that would violate the country’s laws, which is a crafty exploitation of the original spirit of such legislation but one that’s nevertheless been turned a blind eye to by previous leaders because of the perceived mutual benefits of continuing their military cooperation in this manner. That attitude is quickly changing, as the US is now finding out, since President Duterte won’t allow them to stay if they continue disrespecting his country.
Although the US is supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines against ISIS in the southern island of Mindanao, their assistance isn’t invaluable. The Philippines, on the other hand, plays an irreplaceable role in advancing America’s grand strategic objectives in the region vis-a-vis China by virtue of its geographic location and the VFA that’s hitherto enabled the de-facto establishment of US bases there. The Philippines can therefore do without the US, but the US cannot do without the Philippines.
There’s still half a year left before the agreement expires following President Duterte’s decision to do away with this deal, so it’s possible that the two parties might either revise the terms of this agreement or renew it without any changes if the US stops meddling in the Philippines’ domestic affairs. Nevertheless, it would be the right thing to do for the US to withdraw if that doesn’t happen, but judging by its refusal to leave Iraq despite that nation wanting it to do so, it can’t be taken for granted that it’ll pull out of the Philippines either.