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Biden's Asia policy

US to sell Philippines arms despite no human rights reforms

Washington pressured by Manila as parties negotiate key military pact

President Rodrigo Duterte is testing the administration of President Joe Biden by making the supply of military hardware a precondition for renewing a Philippine-U.S. pact. (Source photos by AP and Reuters) 

NEW YORK -- The United States has reaffirmed there are "no restrictions" on arms sales to the Philippine military days after Manila called for more robust defense aid as the two nations open negotiations to renew a key military agreement.

"We will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that furthers shared security challenges and respects human rights," U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson Mike Howard told Nikkei Asia.

The U.S.-Philippine security alliance presents an early test for the administration of President Joe Biden. Washington considers Manila strategically crucial to its efforts to counter Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific.

But the poor human rights record of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, including its involvement in the extrajudicial killings of environmental and land rights activists, caused members of Biden's Democratic Party to propose a halt to all security aid to the country last year in a bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.

President Rodrigo Duterte said on Feb. 12 that the U.S. must "pay" to renew the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that allows U.S. troops to be stationed in the Philippines and is crucial to the U.S. military's Asia-Pacific strategy.

In a subsequent op-ed in the Philippine Star, Philippine ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez said his country's military "must be equipped with new aircraft and other hard assets" for its alliance with the U.S. to thrive.

"This is our interpretation of what [Duterte] meant when he said the U.S. has to 'pay for the VFA,'" he said.

Early this month, the Philippines revealed its intention to purchase around 15 S-70i Black Hawk helicopters manufactured by PZL Mielec, a Polish subsidiary of the U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin. That would allow the air force to retire its aging fleet of Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters.

In April 2020, the U.S. State Department notified Congress of two potential sales of attack helicopters and missiles to the Philippines worth a combined $2 billion.

Howard declined to comment on specific U.S. arms sales, citing government policy, but said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin "affirmed the U.S. commitment" to military agreements with the Philippines during a February 9 phone call with Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine secretary of defense.

By normalizing arms sales to the Philippines, the Biden administration is pushing against a coalition within his own party demanding a review of security aid to Manila due to reports of human rights abuses by the police and military.

Biden last month halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates due to human rights concerns, fulfilling a campaign pledge.

In September, a group of Democratic members of Congress introduced a bill to the House of Representatives that would suspend all aid to the Philippine military and police unless the Duterte administration commits to human rights reforms.

A state department spokesperson told Nikkei it remains "concerned" over extrajudicial killings related to the ongoing war on drugs, but said the Philippine military has "largely kept a distance from the counter narcotics campaign and associated reports of killings."

Brandon Lee, a U.S. citizen who worked as an activist defending indigenous land rights in the northern Philippines, told Nikkei that he and his family were constantly watched and harassed by the military during his time there. Lee was shot four times in August 2019, just one week after he was visited by soldiers who refused to leave and photographed him.

Lee survived the assassination attempt and was airlifted home to San Francisco. He said fellow advocates at the Ifugao Peasant Movement and Cordillera People's Alliance remain "under constant attack" from the military, which falsely labels the groups as fronts for the communist New People's Army -- a common practice known as "red-tagging."

"The U.S. government has an obligation to ensure that our tax dollars [do] not fund death squads and human rights violators," Lee said.

Analysts believe the U.S. is unlikely to withdraw security aid from an ally it deems essential to countering Chinese expansionism and regional terrorism. This may embolden Manila to secure U.S. support for its military as a precondition to extending the VFA.

Duterte unilaterally canceled the VFA in February 2020 after the U.S. canceled the visa of an ally, but temporarily reversed his decision in July.

"Washington is very likely to hear from Manila that a new VFA must take into consideration the totality of Philippine security concerns" -- including Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea and domestic counterterrorism efforts -- said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

The Philippine desire for new defense assets is "another challenge that must be addressed to forge a new VFA," he said.

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