U.S. Nears Extension on Philippine Basing Pact

The text of the agreement, finished at the working level, is now sitting on the desk of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, said people familiar with the talks. The so-called Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), first inked in 1998, gives the United States jurisdiction over its forces in the country and handles the entry and exit of U.S. troops. Losing the deal would remove legal protections that allow U.S. troops to use it as a forward base to respond to potential conflicts or crises. Duterte abruptly canceled the deal last year and since then has strung the United States along with six-month extensions.

U.S. and Philippine negotiators concluded talks on the deal underpinning U.S. troop presence in the Philippines, people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy , a move that could soothe the Biden administration’s tense relationship with a key regional ally as competition with China heats up.

U.S. and Philippine negotiators concluded talks on the deal underpinning U.S. troop presence in the Philippines, people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, a move that could soothe the Biden administration’s tense relationship with a key regional ally as competition with China heats up.

The text of the agreement, finished at the working level, is now sitting on the desk of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, said people familiar with the talks. The so-called Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), first inked in 1998, gives the United States jurisdiction over its forces in the country and handles the entry and exit of U.S. troops. Losing the deal would remove legal protections that allow U.S. troops to use it as a forward base to respond to potential conflicts or crises. Duterte abruptly canceled the deal last year and since then has strung the United States along with six-month extensions.

It was not immediately clear whether the deal is another stopgap six-month extension that will allow negotiators to breathe more easily in the short term or a new agreement that would lock in U.S. troop presence for a much longer period. The Trump administration had previously managed to stop Duterte from beginning the countdown to cancel the VFA, one of two major defense agreements securing the oldest U.S. alliance in Asia. It came after the mercurial Philippine leader first moved to cancel the deal last year after U.S. officials denied a visa to a close political ally of Duterte.

The U.S. State Department previously told Congress it would need to immediately start moving U.S. forces out of the country before an August deadline if talks were unsuccessful. Duterte said earlier this week he planned to “very carefully” study the possibility of the agreement’s renegotiation. But even with negotiations out of the way—a testament to the relationship’s resilience at working levels—experts said the underlying dynamic between U.S. President Joe Biden and Duterte remains fragile.

“Right now, everything is in stasis because you can’t plan an alliance on six-month intervals,” said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “How can you plan an alliance strategy around the Philippines if they can wake up tomorrow and decide the alliance is meaningless?”

It’s an alliance that has begun to look very different over the past 30 years. The U.S. Navy’s largest presence away from U.S. shores was once at Subic Bay in the Philippines, before the 1992 closure of the base. Clark Air Base north of Manila was also a critical jumping off point for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

Though the Philippines was left off a list of U.S. allies in Biden’s interim national security strategy released in March, U.S. State and Defense Department officials insist they’re still working to build the relationship.

“We will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that addresses shared security challenges and respects human rights,” said Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesperson. “Our respective officials are engaged in open dialogue, which is essential to maintaining the strength of any alliance.”

A State Department spokesperson did not directly address progress in on talks, but said U.S. and Philippine representatives have been in regular consultation over the past few months. “The U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to both of our countries’ security,” the spokesperson said. The Philippine embassy to the United States did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Negotiations cap years of tension between the United States and Philippines under Duterte, who had repeatedly threatened to pivot away from the United States and toward China. During his first visit to Beijing in 2016, Duterte declared it was “time to say goodbye” to Washington. And Duterte cozied up to China in other ways: For years, his government refused to publicly acknowledge the ruling of a key international tribunal favorable to the Philippines that rejected China’s claims to the South China Sea. But although Duterte still hopes to cultivate a tighter relationship with Beijing, experts said, the ground has quickly shifted under his feet. Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea prompted an about-face in Manila, and the notoriously undiplomatic Duterte began turning his ire on Beijing last year. He signaled his hardening stance toward China during his 2020 speech before the U.N. General Assembly, when he directly addressed the 2016 court ruling, saying the Philippines would “firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

In another sign of shifting loyalties, Duterte’s foreign minister earlier this month lashed out at Beijing in an expletive-filled Twitter post as Chinese coast guard vessels approached the Scarborough Shoals, a disputed territory claimed by both the Philippines and China. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called China an “ugly oaf” and demanded it “get the fuck out.” He later apologized for the tweet.

The mooring of Chinese fishing vessels near Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands this year, within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone, also highlighted the need for U.S. help. And it’s not clear when in-person engagement on the issue is coming: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was set to head to the Shangri-La Dialogue early next month, but the gathering was canceled on Thursday. Officials have signaled Austin hopes to discuss means to cool simmering tensions in the region with Chinese counterparts.

“Given the fact that it feels like it’s facing more pressure from China over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, it makes sense for the Philippines not to backtrack on its alliance with the U.S.,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation focused on the Indo-Pacific. “By getting rid of the VFA, you would eliminate the U.S. military’s ability to go easily in and out of the Philippines.”

Still, U.S. attempts to keep the relationship on an even keel through the turbulence of the Duterte administration may do little to satisfy human rights watchers. Duterte has raised hackles with a violent drug crackdown and by silencing critics in the media. In February, Sens. Edward Markey, Dick Durbin, and Patrick Leahy called out Duterte after a prominent Filipino human rights advocate and politician jailed by the administration was acquitted on seemingly politically motivated charges. “President Duterte has tried to silence his critics and the independent press through false and politically motivated charges, but his disdain for human rights, free speech, and democracy is on clear display to the world,” the lawmakers wrote.

Even though negotiators have made progress when it comes to keeping U.S. forces in the country, experts don’t feel the relationship will be sure footed as long as Duterte is around. That leaves officials looking toward next year’s election in the Philippines, when Duterte is set to leave office.

“You constantly have this sense that you’re hanging by your fingernails with Duterte,” Poling said. “They’re not going to feel secure in its longevity until July 1 next year when Duterte is officially out of office.”