Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.03.06

Fresh Philippines fiasco leaves vacuum for China to fill

the japan times on February 25, 2020

A recent decision by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States was a fiasco. The unfortunate move was predictable, however, because it was the second security fiasco Manila has made in the last three decades.

The decision is a serious mistake for five reasons. First, it was impulsive. As in the 1930s, we have once again entered an era of uncertainty where decisions by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment prevail. U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping all have made and will continue to make irreversibly wrong decisions. Now Duterte seems to have joined their ranks, although he has some rationale to challenge Washington.

The U.S.-Philippines VFA, signed in 1999, allows the U.S. to retain jurisdiction over U.S.military personnel who have been accused of crimes in the Philippines, unless the crimes are "of particular importance to the Philippines." Otherwise, the U.S. can refuse to detain or arrest the accused or may prosecute them under U.S. jurisdiction. Duterte, a nationalist politician, might have considered these provisions to be offensive, humiliating and extremely unfair. There are some good reasons for him to feel that way.

The VFA is somewhat different from the status of forces agreements that the U.S. has concluded with many of its allies in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. The Japan-U.S. SOFA, for example, stipulates in Article 17 (c) that the U.S. only has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel's offenses that are solely against the property or security of the U.S. or its military personnel, or offenses arising out of any act or omission done in the performance of official duties of the U.S.

As deputy director at the Foreign Ministry's office of Japan-U.S. SOFA affairs in the early 1990s I saw how sensitive issues of U.S. jurisdiction over crimes by its personnel in other countries could be. In 1995, the gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by American servicemen seriously endangered the U.S. military presence in Japan.

Similarly, in the Philippines the U.S. once retained custody of four military personnel accused of rape in Subic Bay during their trial in a Philippines court, detaining them at the American Embassy in Manila. The experience must have been infuriating for the Philippines.

Second, Duterte's decision created another power vacuum in the South China Sea. No matter how emotionally justified his decision might be, it was still a big mistake since it sends the wrong signal to Beijing. The Philippines did the same thing in 1991 when the bilateral 1947 Military Bases Agreement was approaching expiration and Washington wanted to renew it.

A new treaty was signed but anti-U.S. sentiment was on the rise in the Philippines. Finally, in September 1991 the Philippine Senate voted to not ratify the new treaty and U.S. forces had to leave the Philippines by November 1992. The U.S. withdrawal created a huge power vacuum in the region.

Third, the move will prompt China to fill the security vacuum. In February 1992, a few months after U.S. troops started leaving the Philippines, Beijing enacted the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which declared that all the islands, waters and the resources adjacent to Chinese territory are Chinese. Subsequently, China started building artificial islands and military fortifications in the South China Sea.

At that time, high-ranking U.S. Navy officers stationed at the naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, unanimously downplayed the impact of the loss of the Subic Bay base in the Philippines to regional security, saying that it was all right since the U.S. still had Yokosuka and Sasebo. This was wrong.

Barring U.S. military personnel from visiting the Philippines and conducting exercises with their Filipino counterparts will only create another power vacuum in the region ands embolden Beijing to do much more. It's not clear whether Duterte has paid due consideration to the 1991 fiasco.

Fourth, the move endangers the U.S. and its allies in the region. Political decisions by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment create a "new normal" under which another series of wrong decisions are subsequently made by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment. That is exactly what Duterte is doing.

The Philippines is not alone in East Asia. While Beijing is a powerful neighbor, Manila has many Southeast Asian neighbors, friends and allies that share common values and interests across the Pacific Ocean. Manila's impulsive and reckless decision could pose a threat to them by endangering freedom of navigation in the region.

Fifth, the move will not help the Philippines. Following the last fiasco, U.S.-Philippines relations eventually improved and the two governments signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in April 2014, which was designed to promote Interoperability, capacity building, maritime security and maritime domain awareness -- all of which Manila now badly needs.

The VFA only allows invited visiting U.S. forces access to as well as the use of designated Filipino military facilities or areas. The U.S. will neither establish a permanent military presence or base nor deploy nuclear weapons in the Philippines. One wonders what else Duterte wants from the U.S.?