What Is the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement, and Why Does It Matter?

Yesterday, the Philippines announced it had given notice to the United States that it intended to withdraw from the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries. The following is a quick summary of what the VFA is and why it matters.

Q1: Is the VFA the Mutual Defense Treaty?

A1: No. The VFA is an agreement between the two countries in support of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The MDT was established in 1951 between the United States and the Philippines to provide mutual support in case of foreign attack.

Q2: Why is the Philippines backing out?

A2: 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.

Q3: What is the VFA?

A3: The two countries signed the VFA in 1998. It provides simplified access procedures to the Philippines for U.S. service members on official business (for example, U.S.-Philippines bilateral training or military exercises), and 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.

Q4: Why does the VFA matter?

A4: The VFA matters for several reasons in addition to ease of access and clear procedures for the two countries to follow.

First, 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. For example, in 2015, a U.S. Marine was tried and convicted of killing a Filipina. Upon conviction, the service member was sentenced to a 12-year prison term. Because of the VFA, he is serving that time in a facility jointly established by the Philippines and the United States rather than a Philippine prison.

Third, it is a political signal of the closeness of the U.S.-Philippines alliance. Analysts and former officials believe that signaling close ties between the United States and Philippines supports efforts to deter China from further encroaching on Philippines’ sovereignty.

By withdrawing from the VFA, President Duterte doubles down on his messaging that the Philippines seeks distance from its relationship with the United States.

Q5: What is next?

A5: The termination procedure within the VFA establishes a 180-day period from announcement of intent to withdraw to when that withdrawal becomes official. Without a new agreement, then, U.S. forces currently operating in the Philippines will need to leave or find a new legal status. This would include U.S. forces present to provide assistance to the AFP fight against Islamic State-affiliated insurgents in the southern islands. While the AFP and broader Philippine government efforts are making headway against the insurgents, U.S. support is amplifying and expediting progress for the Philippines while slowing or even reversing the spread of the Islamic State into Southeast Asia.

The United States could also seize on the moment to seek to renegotiate a new and better agreement with the Philippines—one that satisfies President Duterte’s objective of standing strong against the United States, and one that provides President Trump an opportunity to put his unique stamp on another major agreement, this time a defense agreement, that could advance U.S. interests for years to come.

John Schaus is a fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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John Schaus

John Schaus

Former Senior Fellow, International Security Program