U.S., Philippines Keep Key Military Deal in Win For Biden
(Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte restored a key military deal with the U.S., boosting President Joe Biden’s efforts to counter China and strengthen ties with allies in the Asia-Pacific.
Duterte retracted last year’s termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at a joint briefing with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin Friday. The two nations can continue military exercises following the decision, Austin said.
Duterte kept the pact due the “clarity” of the U.S.’s position to fulfill obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty, his spokesman Harry Roque said in a separate statement. “The Philippines however will continue to engage other countries for partnerships,” Roque said.
The decision to keep the military deal “restores some certainty” in the Philippines’ defense relations with the U.S. and “will be helpful in at least deterring Beijing from escalatory moves” in the South China Sea, said Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“However, I don’t see such a move necessarily dealing a blow to the Philippines’ ties with China,” Koh said, adding that Manila will continue to see ties with Beijing as essential to secure vaccines and investments amid the pandemic.
Duterte and Austin met Thursday and agreed there’s room to strengthen ties as the U.S. defense chief vowed a deeper role in Asia amid lingering tension in the South China Sea. They had an “open and frank” discussion on the status and future direction of Philippines-U.S. engagement, according to a statement from Duterte’s office released Friday.
“They agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law and trade and investments,” said the statement that came on the U.S. defense secretary’s first official visit to Manila.
Duterte last year moved to terminate the military deal between the two countries, which sets the terms for joint exercises and engagement of American soldiers in the Philippines. The decision, seen as a pivot toward China, was Duterte’s first significant effort to cut defense ties with the U.S.
However, the agreement was repeatedly extended as tensions between the Philippines and China have escalated in recent months over disputed areas in the South China Sea. Backed by the U.S., Manila has protested against Chinese vessels in contested waters, while Beijing has insisted their presence in the area is legitimate.
Austin has used his visit to Southeast Asia to reassure allies of the U.S.’s commitment to engage with the region, and to challenge what he described as China’s aggression.
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