Philippines eyes VFA with China for joint military drills; US treaty likely to hinder process

However, Philippines already has an existing Mutual Defense Treaty with the US which states that both the countries are supposed to assist each other.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony held in Beijing, China October 20, 2016. Reuters

Soon after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte hinted that his country would like to hold a joint military exercise with China in the Sulu Sea, his top security Adviser was quoted by the Philippine Inquirer that "when the President gives a pronouncement, we take that as an order from him." However, the question arises if the Philippines government will be able to craft a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with China despite the existing Mutual Defense Treaty with the US?

The VFA is a bilateral agreement between a country and a foreign nation having military forces visiting in that country. This will allow foreign military troops presence in the Philippines for joint military exercise purposes.

National Security Adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, admitted to Philippine media that they are now studying the possible requirements to craft the VFA and he would consult with the Department of National Defense (DND) on how to come up with this proposed agreement.

Existing treaty

However, despite the Philippines government's desire to craft a new VFA, the country's standing treaty with the US government called the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty is likely to create a hindrance.

The Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America was signed on August 30, 1951, in Washington, D.C. The overall accord contained eight articles, which say that both nations would support each other if either the Philippines or the United States were to be attacked by an external party.

As a result of the MDT, the Philippines has been hosting Philippine-US joint military exercises since 2002 dubbed as Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder). When Balikatan ended its exercise, a new agreement was formed in 2014 called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA),

But early in 2016, Duterte ordered to stop the war games with US and asked his defense team to review the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and see if Philippines is benefitting from it. The EDCA will continue only if the results of the assessment are positive.

China-Philippines friendship

In a related development, right after the ASEAN Summit in Manila, China President Xi Jinping called Duterte over the phone and the two leaders discussed the growing tensions in the Korea Peninsula.

China earlier pledged USD 9 billion during Duterte's visit to China, shortly after the president announced that he is realigning himself to China and also Russia.

When in China, Duterte also cited unfair diplomatic practices of US with the Philippines. He claimed that while US nationals can visit the Philippines without a visa, Filipinos need to coax the US embassy to apply for a US visa. He also asked the US not to intervene in the internal affairs of the Philippines particularly his campaign to stop drugs in the country, where at least 8,000 suspected drug users and traders have been killed in a number of raids by police since 2016.