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Philippines reverse course on ending US’s VFA

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    9th Jun, 2020

The government of Philippines had suspended plans to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a deal that is important to Washington's moves to counter Beijing's rising regional power.


The government of Philippines had suspended plans to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a deal that is important to Washington's moves to counter Beijing's rising regional power.


  • The U.S. military operates around the world. Similarly, the VFA spells out the rules, guidelines and legal status of the U.S. military when operating in the Philippines.
  • The two countries signed the VFA in 1998. It provides simplified access procedures to the Philippines for U.S. service members on official business.
  • It provides a series of procedures for how to resolve issues that may come up as a result of U.S. forces being present in the Philippines.
  • The VFA also affirms the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty as well as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement— agreements that enable the U.S. military to conduct joint exercises and operations in the Philippines.
  • The MDT was established in 1951 between the United States and the Philippines to provide mutual support in case of foreign attack.

Why Philippines wanted to exit in the first place?

  • In February this year, the Philippines announced it had given notice to the United States that it intended to withdraw from the VFA.
  • The proximate driver of this change is that President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is unhappy with the revocation of the U.S. visa of one of his key allies, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.
    • Senator dela Rosa was formerly Chief of the Philippine National Police and led a signature anti-drug effort of President Duterte, which has resulted in thousands of deaths of Filipinos suspected of being involved in illegal drugs.
    • The U.S. State Department has reported a high level of extrajudicial killings as a result of the anti-drug campaign, specifically while dela Rosa was Chief.
  • The broader context is that President Duterte has sought to create greater distance between the Philippines and the United States—what he calls an “independent foreign policy.”
  • Several elements of that approach include outreach to Russia for closer ties and potential arms sales and an effort to develop stronger economic and diplomatic ties with China even as the Philippines continues to push back (with diminishing force) against China’s encroachment of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
  • President Duterte is pursuing this approach despite high favorability ratings for the United States in polls of the Philippines’ population.

Why VFA matters?

In addition to ease of access and clear procedures for the two countries to follow, the VFA matters for various reasons as given below-

  • Simpler process: It provides clear procedures and processes for how to handle issues that arise as a result of U.S. service members presence in the Philippines.
  • Signal of alliances: It is a political signal of the closeness of the U.S.-Philippines alliance. Signaling close ties between the United States and Philippines supports efforts to deter China from further encroaching on Philippines’ sovereignty.

What if Philippines terminated the deal?

  • Terminating the VFA would leave the U.S. military without any legal or operational standing in the Philippines — and that’s a problem for the alliance.
  • Without a VFA, the U.S. military would not be able to support either of these defense agreements.


Security issues in the disputed South China Sea helped convince the Philippines to delay quitting the pact. Moreover, the VFA reversal showed Duterte had to decide between an aggressive China and United States, a historically helpful nation


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