MANILA — The Philippines will continue its visiting forces agreement with the U.S. for the near future, suspending an earlier decision to scrap the major military deal amid China’s renewed muscle-flexing in the South China Sea.
“The abrogation of the visiting forces agreement has been suspended” upon President Rodrigo Duterte’s instruction, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said Tuesday on Twitter.
In its letter to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, which Locsin posted, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said the move was “in light of political and other developments in the region.”
Duterte early this year ordered the 1998 agreement to be scrapped, after the U.S. suspended the visa of a political ally. Despite opposition from the military, Manila served a notice of abrogation on Feb. 11, triggering a 180-day countdown before the official termination Aug. 9.
But tensions have risen in the South China Sea during the past few months. Manila filed diplomatic protests in April after a Chinese ship aimed its weapons radar at a Philippine vessel and Beijing proclaimed new districts in the disputed waters.
Separately, a Chinese ship was accused of sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel while another survey ship engaged in a standoff with a Malaysian oil exploration vessel as Southeast Asian nations grappled to contain the coronavirus.
The visiting forces agreement facilitates the entry of U.S. troops into the Philippines for around 300 military drills annually, including maritime exercises near the South China Sea.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila said it welcomes the Philippine government’s latest decision.
“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” the embassy said.
But Manila’s letter to the embassy dated Monday said the suspension of the termination process “shall continue for six months” and can be extended by the Philippines for another six months, “after which the tolling of the initial period in [the] note … dated 11 February 2020 shall resume.”