U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he did not mind Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to end a decades-old military agreement with the United States, a position at odds with that of his defense secretary who viewed the move with dismay.
Duterte on Tuesday announced termination of the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the decision “unfortunate” as Washington and its allies press China to abide by “international rules” in Asia.
The Philippine military chief, armed forces commander General Felimon Santos, backed Duterte’s termination of the 1998 VFA and said doing so would allow the Philippines to expand its modernization program and its engagement with Australia and Japan—both U.S. allies.
Santos said planes and ships were being procured from countries other than the United States, such as South Korea, while Filipinos were now “doing the leg work” on intelligence gathering on Islamist extremists.
“You know these sentiments of soldiers, we are all high morale,” he told reporters. “It will make us more eager to build up our own capabilities.”
The U.S. embassy in Manila called it “a serious step with significant implications.” Duterte’s decision, sparked by the revocation of a U.S. visa held by a former police chief who led Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, takes legal effect in 180 days and U.S. officials have expressed hope it can be reversed or delayed.
“I don’t really mind if they would like to do that, it will save a lot of money,” Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about Duterte’s move and whether anything could be done to get him to reconsider. “My views are different from others,” he added.
Trump has frequently expressed a desire to bring U.S. military forces home from decades-long deployments abroad and has strong-armed some allies into paying more for the right to U.S. defense.
Trump said the United States had helped the Philippines defeat ISIS terrorists. He said he had “a very good” relationship with Duterte and added: “we’ll see what happens.”
Duterte’s decision could complicate U.S. military interests in the broader Asia-Pacific region as China’s ambitions rise. Some Filipino senators quickly sought to block the move, arguing Duterte had no right to unilaterally scrap international pacts the country’s senate had ratified.
The VFA is important to the overall U.S.-Philippines alliance and sets out rules for U.S. soldiers operating in the Philippines, a former U.S. territory. Washington has called the relationship “ironclad,” despite Duterte’s complaints that include allegations of U.S. hypocrisy and ill-treatment.
Ending the VFA complicates Washington’s efforts to maintain an Asia-Pacific troop presence amid friction over the presence of U.S. personnel in Japan and South Korea and security concerns about China and North Korea.
Esper referred to the period before Duterte’s decision takes effect when speaking to reporters on Tuesday.
“One hundred and eighty days. We’ve got to work through it, and we’ll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time … I don’t get too excited about these things. We’ve got a process we have to work through.”
Some lawmakers in the Philippines are concerned that without the VFA, two other pacts that make up the long-standing U.S. alliance with Manila would be irrelevant, namely the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement made under the Obama administration, and a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
Supporters of the agreements say they have helped deter Chinese militarization in the South China Sea and $1.3 billion of U.S. defense assistance since 1998 has been vital in boosting the capabilities of under-resourced Philippine forces.
By Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom
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