Rodrigo Duterte. Picture: REUTERS/ EZRA ACAYAN
Rodrigo Duterte. Picture: REUTERS/ EZRA ACAYAN

Manila/Singapore — The Philippines has notified the US that it’s terminating a 22-year-old military agreement, which can be ended with 180-days notice, just hours after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said US President Donald Trump was trying to save the deal.

The notice to terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement — which sets the terms for joint exercises and engagement of American soldiers in the Philippines — has been transmitted to the US, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said on Tuesday.

Scrapping the agreement would be the first concrete step by the Philippines to cut defence ties with the US, a move that Duterte has signaled since his six-year term started in 2016 and as he realigns his foreign policy towards China.

In 1951, the Philippines and the US signed a mutual defence treaty that binds the nations to defend each other, if attacked.

“Trump, and the others, are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Duterte said in a speech in Manila on Monday night. “I said, I don’t want it,” he said, according to the official transcript. Duterte hasn’t spoken to Trump, and “most likely” got information from the US embassy, Panelo said.

Scrapping the military deal will bring the Southeast Asian country closer to China, as US support for Philippine military will likely be reduced, said Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “As with many other decisions made by President Duterte, China appears to be the biggest winner and Philippine external security the biggest loser,” Cook said.

The Philippines may find it difficult to access millions of dollars in military aid, and trade relations may also be hurt once the pact is terminated, foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin said last week.

Joint military activities — including training for thousands of Filipino and American soldiers — will also be severely curtailed, he added. Duterte revived his threats to end the military pact with the US last month after the US canceled the visa of his former police chief who oversaw his deadly drug war.

Duterte said the nation’s military ties with the US didn’t solve the decades-long communist insurgency.

The Philippines’ leader has previously questioned whether the US would defend the Philippines if China seizes disputed shoals and reefs in the South China Sea — scepticism that has persisted in the Southeast Asian nation for decades.

Beijing has built several artificial structure in the Spratly Islands where Manila also has claims. Philippine fishermen and vessels resupplying Philippine-occupied features in the waters have also been harassed by Chinese ships.

With Clarissa Batino

Bloomberg