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US defense chief Austin to meet Duterte with military pact on the line

Philippine ambassador bullish for a deal as Washington courts Southeast Asia

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, will be the first senior member of the Biden administration to visit Southeast Asia, with plans to meet Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/MANILA -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during his tour of Southeast Asia starting Friday, the Philippine ambassador to the U.S. told Nikkei, as Washington works to save a pact at the heart of their military alliance.

Relations between the Philippines and the U.S. have been strained under Duterte, who has repeatedly expressed anti-American sentiment. He unilaterally decided in February 2020 to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides a legal framework for the U.S. military presence in the Philippines and is widely considered critical to maintaining their alliance. 

Strengthening bilateral ties remains a top priority for U.S. President Joe Biden as he pushes to bolster partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to counter China's rise.

Though negotiations continue, a final decision over the fate of the two-decade-old deal has been postponed time and time again. Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez said Austin and Duterte will meet to discuss how the countries could save the agreement.

"There are many things that have already been discussed during [preparatory] bilateral meetings that we've had with the United States" toward keeping the VFA, Romualdez said in an interview Tuesday.

"We've already come to several terms of agreement which have been submitted to the president," he added.

An end to the pact would weaken the U.S. presence in the region and could embolden China to take further expansionist actions in the South China Sea. The U.S. will need to get Duterte on board to save the deal, with the president believed to take issue with several terms of the VFA, such as the treatment of U.S. military personnel who have committed crimes.

"We are assuming that the president has already looked at [the proposed terms], and if there are any other questions, I'm sure it will be minor," Romualdez said, expressing hope that the two sides can reach an agreement.

A meeting by Duterte and Austin "will show that the relationship that we have with the United States remains strong and stable," he said.

Romualdez also welcomed the U.S. State Department's decision in June approving the sale of F-16 fighters and missiles to the Philippines, which he said would "no doubt" positively impact negotiations on the VFA.

"President Duterte wants to modernize our armed forces. It's important for us to have a strong armed forces so that we can defend ourselves," Romualdez said.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippines' ambassador to the U.S., speaks with Nikkei about Austin's tour to Southeast Asia. (Photo by Ryo Nakamura)

Duterte has also expressed an interest in negotiating with the U.S. on the VFA. "I am confident that it will be signed under President Duterte," Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Wednesday.

Still, Duterte is eager to maintain amicable ties with China as well. While Romualdez acknowledged that the Philippines and China have many disagreements regarding the South China Sea, he stressed that "nobody wants to have a confrontation."

"We continue to try to work with them on many other things, most especially in the economic side," he said. "That's the practical way of doing it."

He compared the situation with Biden's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite tensions between their countries. "Each country will find a way to be able to meet with the other country," he said.

Since taking office six months ago, the Biden administration has worked to mend frayed ties with Europe, Japan, South Korea and India. But Southeast Asia so far has taken a back seat.

"For an effective Asia strategy, for an effective Indo-Pacific approach, you must do more in Southeast Asia," Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council's Indo-Pacific coordinator, had said at an Asia Society virtual event this month.

Austin is the first senior administration official to visit the region, and will also be making stops in Singapore and Vietnam. He told reporters Wednesday that he aims to show that "the United States remains a reliable partner, a friend who shows up when it counts."

"I'll be working closely with our partners about how we're updating and modernizing our capabilities and their own capabilities to work together to tackle some changing forms of aggression and coercion that we're all seeing," he said, in reference to China's expansionist moves in the South China Sea.

Austin will also deliver a lecture on the Indo-Pacific for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore on Tuesday.

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