MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has reversed his decision to end a key defense pact with the United States, allowing the continuation of large-scale combat exercises between American and Philippine forces that have sometimes alarmed China.
Duterte’s decision was announced Friday by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at a joint press conference with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Manila. It was a step back from the Philippine leader’s astonishing vow at the start of his tenure to distance himself from Washington as he tried to rebuild frayed ties with China amid territorial divisions in the South China Sea. .
“The president has decided to recall or withdraw the VFA termination letter,” Lorenzana told reporters after an hour-long meeting with Austin, referring to the visiting forces deal. “There is no pending termination letter and we are back on track. “
Austin thanked Duterte for the move, which he said would further strengthen the two nations’ 70-year treaty alliance.
“Our countries face a range of challenges, from climate crises to pandemic and, as we do, a strong and resilient US-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.” Austin said. “A fully restored VFA will help us achieve this together. “
Termination of the pact would have been a blow to America’s oldest alliance in Asia, as Washington clashes with Beijing over a range of issues, including trade, human rights and China’s behavior in the South China Sea , which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.
The US military presence in the region is seen as a counterweight to China, which has used force to claim large areas of the disputed South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands equipped with airstrips and d ‘military installations. China ignored a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its historical foundation.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have been locked in a territorial stalemate for decades. The United States does not take sides and insist on freedom of navigation in international waters, and does not recognize China’s claims.
In a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin said Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea “has no basis in international law” and “undermines the sovereignty of states in the region.” He said the United States supports coastal states in the region in upholding their rights under international law and is committed to meeting their defense treaty obligations with Japan and the Philippines.
Duterte informed the U.S. government in February 2020 that the Philippines intended to repeal the 1998 agreement, which allows large numbers of U.S. forces to join in combat training with Philippine troops and fixes the legal conditions of their temporary stay.
The U.S. and Philippine forces engage in approximately 300 activities each year, including Balikatan, or shoulder-to-shoulder exercises, which involve thousands of soldiers in land, sea, and air exercises that often included live fire exercises. They often sparked concern in China when they were held on the outskirts of the sea that Beijing claims to be its own.
The termination of the pact would have taken effect after 180 days, but Duterte repeatedly delayed the decision. While on hold, the U.S. and Filipino military implemented combat and disaster response exercise plans, but canceled larger exercises last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Balikatan exercises resumed last April but have been drastically curtailed due to continuing outbreaks and lockdowns of COVID-19.