MANILA -- The Philippines will continue its visiting forces agreement with the U.S. for the near future, suspending an earlier decision to scrap the major military deal amid China's renewed muscle-flexing in the South China Sea.
"The abrogation of the visiting forces agreement has been suspended" upon President Rodrigo Duterte's instruction, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said Tuesday on Twitter.
In its letter to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, which Locsin posted, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said the move was "in light of political and other developments in the region."
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Locsin said Duterte's decision also came amid "heightened superpower tensions," without directly referring to the U.S.-China rivalry.
"I will answer only one question, which I will ask myself. Why? Why did he change his mind?," Locsin said. "[I]n the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in the time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world."
Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez acknowledged that recent developments in the South China Sea were a factor in Duterte's decision.
"And the political reasons, obviously, [are] that there are quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea. Very clearly, we see that," Romualdez said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel.
"And so, because of security issues and many things that are happening in that part of the world, I think both our governments have seen that it would be prudent for us to simply suspend first any implementation of the termination," Romualdez added.
Duterte early this year ordered the 1998 agreement to be scrapped, after the U.S. suspended the visa of a political ally. Despite opposition from the defense establishment, Manila served a notice of abrogation on Feb. 11, triggering a 180-day countdown before the official termination Aug. 9.
But tensions have risen in the South China Sea during the past few months. Manila filed diplomatic protests in April after a Chinese ship aimed its weapons radar at a Philippine vessel and Beijing proclaimed new districts in the disputed waters.
Separately, a Chinese ship was accused of sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel while another survey ship engaged in a standoff with a Malaysian oil exploration vessel as Southeast Asian nations grappled to contain the coronavirus.
The visiting forces agreement facilitates the entry of U.S. troops into the Philippines for around 300 military drills annually, including maritime exercises near the South China Sea.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila said it welcomes the Philippine government's latest decision.
"Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines," the embassy said.
But Manila's letter to the embassy dated Monday said the suspension of the termination process "shall continue for six months" and can be extended by the Philippines for another six months, "after which the tolling of the initial period in [the] note ... dated 11 February 2020 shall resume."