Amidst tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines says it will not end the US military access agreement

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President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to maintain the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) “in light of political and other developments in the region,” Filipino Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on Tuesday in a article published on social networks.

The agreement, signed in 1988, gives US military aircraft and ships free entry to the Philippines and eases visa restrictions for US military personnel.

The Philippine government gave the United States 180 days notice to end the deal in February, suggesting that Manila should rely on its own resources for its defense. On Tuesday, the United States 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,” said a statement from the US Embassy in Manila.

The Philippines once housed two of the largest US military bases outside the United States: Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station.

Although these ceased to be American bases in the early 1990s, American forces still had access to them under the VFA, and Manila maintained solid military ties with Washington.

But in recent years, Duterte has moved away from these historic ties to the United States and to China, which has offered a closer economic relationship with Manila.

“I need China. More than anyone else at this point, I need China, “said Duterte before flying to China in April 2018.

Compared to its predecessors, Duterte considered the ongoing territorial dispute in the Philippines over the South China Sea to be more negotiable.

The Philippines and China are among several nations that overlap in part or in part. China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea as its own, although other asylum seekers have borders much closer to the disputed waters.

Duterte said last year that Chinese President Xi Jinping was offered a majority stake in an energy deal in exchange for skipping international arbitration in favor of Manila in the South China Sea.

In 2016, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights over most of the South China Sea.

However, China has intensified its military presence on the islands also claimed by Manila.

In the past two months, the People’s Liberation Army has moved advanced anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance aircraft to Fiery Cross Reef, known as Kagitingan in the Philippines, in the chain of Spratly Islands.

Beijing has also made Fiery Cross part of its southern Hainan province, creating two new administrative districts covering the South China Sea, headquartered in the Paracel Islands, another group of disputed claim islands.

In addition, China has maintained a presence of maritime militia ships around the island of Thitu, the largest island occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago, for more than a year, according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

According to an AMTI satellite analysis released in March, an average of 18 Chinese ships sail on the island every day, hampering the Philippines’s attempts to build infrastructure.

Locsin said on Wednesday that the Philippines sees the United States playing a role in the region for some time to come.

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States, while continuing to reach out to our regional allies to build a common defense to maintain stability, peace and the pursuit of economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world, “he added. said.

CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this report.

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