Amid tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines say it will not end the U.S. military access agreement

Why it matters who owns the seas

President Rodrigo Duterte decided to maintain the Visiting Force Agreement (VFA) “in light of political and other developments in the region,” said Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr on Tuesday.

The agreement, signed in 1988, offers U.S. planes and military ships free entry to the Philippines and eases visa restrictions for American military personnel.

The Philippine government gave the United States 180 days’ notice to conclude the agreement in February, suggesting that Manila should rely on its resources for its defense. On Tuesday, the United States welcomed the change of heart.

“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries and we look forward to continuing close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” said a statement from the American embassy in Manila.

The Philippines was once home to two of America’s largest military bases outside the United States: Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station.

Although those ceased to be U.S. bases in the early 1990s, U.S. forces still had access to them under the VFA and Manila maintained strong military ties with Washington.

But in recent years, Duterte has moved away from those historical ties with the United States and China, which has offered a closer economic relationship with Manila.

“I need China. More than anyone else at this point, I need China,” said Duterte before flying to China in April 2018.

Compared to its predecessors, Duterte saw the ongoing territorial dispute in the Philippines over the South China Sea as more negotiable.

Both the Philippines and China are among several nations with overlapping claims on the sea, or parts of it. China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, despite other applicants having borders much closer to the disputed waters.

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Last year, Duterte said he received a controlling stake in a joint energy deal by Chinese President Xi Jinping in exchange for ignorance of an international arbitration in favor of Manila in the South China Sea.
In 2016, a Hague tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China has no legal basis for claiming historical rights over most of the South China Sea.

China, however, has stepped up its military presence on the islands also claimed by Manila.

In the past two months, the People’s Liberation Army has moved the advanced anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance aircraft to Fiery Cross Reef, known as Kagitingan in the Philippines, in the Spratly Islands chain.

Beijing has also made Fiery Cross part of its southern province of Hainan, creating two new administrative districts covering the South China Sea based in the Paracel Islands, another island group with disputed claims.

In addition, China has maintained a presence of maritime militia ships around the island of Thitu, the largest occupied Philippine island in the Spratly archipelago, for over a year, according to Asia’s maritime transparency initiative.

An average of 18 Chinese ships have been around the island every day, according to an AMTI satellite analysis published in March, hampering Filipino attempts to build infrastructure there.

On Wednesday, Locsin indicated that the Philippines will see the United States play a role in the region for some time to come.

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States, although we continue to reach our regional allies in building a common defense towards lasting stability, peace and continued economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world, “he said.

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CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this report.

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