Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has made no secret of his desire to cozy up to China, at times prompting tensions with the United States, a long-time military ally.
This week the leader doubled down on threats to downgrade the bilateral relationship, ending a two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). It was an apparent response to the move by Washington to revoke a U.S. visa issued to a former Philippine police chief who spearheaded a controversial war on drugs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called Duterte’s action “unfortunate,” noting that it comes as America is working to counter China’s growing influence in the Southeast Asian region.
While there are 180 days before the decision will take effect, a spokesman for the Philippine administration signaled there was no chance of them changing their minds, and he stressed that Duterte wouldn’t even consider accepting an invitation from Trump:
“The president will not entertain any initiative coming from the U.S. government to salvage the VFA, neither will he accept any official invitation to visit the United States.”
While the U.S. defense officials will no doubt lament the continued drift with the Mutual Defense Treaty ally, it is likely more of a loss for the Manila than for Washington.
Military presence on the Philippines archipelago is part of an old American defense blueprint referred to as the “Island Chain Strategy.” The Philippines, along with Japan and Taiwan, represent the “First island chain,” originally envisioned as a way to contain the China and the Soviet Union.
But many say the Cold War-era approach has done more to provoke paranoia in China than to provide strategic benefit to the U.S. At the same time, the dilapidated Philippines military relies almost entirely on American resources, and swapping them for Chinese and Russian alternatives would represent a considerable downgrade.