Lloyd Austin’s trip comes as the Biden administration looks to reinforce Washington’s presence in the region amid a tussle for influence with China. While this is seen as being a tough sell, there may be progress with the Duterte administration and an ‘improved’ Visiting Forces Agreement.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to visit the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam this weekend on his first trip to Southeast Asia, in a bid to reinforce Washington’s presence in the region but while experts say this will be a tough sell, there is the possibility of progress on security with Manila.
“This is an effort by the Biden administration to show the region matters to the United States,” said Dr Renato de Castro, an international relations professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
He said there was a perception among countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that Washington had “ignored and neglected” the region, despite it being “one of the battlegrounds of their strategic competition”.
Southeast Asia has emerged as a key arena as the US and China tussle for influence amid an increasingly heated rivalry that extends across geopolitics, commerce and technology.
Said Aaron Jed Rabena, research fellow at the Manila-based think tank Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress and a member of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations: “The US is now working with allies and partners to offset China’s influence in Asean by countering the Belt and Road Initiative. It’s indicative of the US’ desire to strengthen alliances and security partnerships.”
He noted that Singapore and Vietnam were also “countries that have an aligned political or defence agenda with the US”.
Austin leaves for his trip on July 23, visiting Alaska before he goes to Singapore, Hanoi and Manila, according to the US embassy in the Vietnamese capital.
“Strong alliances and partnerships are key to supporting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. That’s why I’m visiting Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines later this week,” he tweeted on Tuesday, adding that he was looking forward to delivering a talk in Singapore on July 27 as part of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Fullerton lecture series.
Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Austin was visiting the three most critical US political and security partners in the region.
“[These are] Singapore, the most significant security partner; Vietnam, the one who is increasingly most closely aligned on competition with China; and the Philippines, the oldest Asian ally, where [US] access is under serious threat,” he said.
“The US doesn’t have a security treaty with Singapore, but it has an access agreement and an enhanced defence cooperation agreement. Singapore provides significant naval access as well as access for air assets doing training.”
Poling said Singapore was a closer regional security partner than Manila at the moment, referring to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement last year that he was looking to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US.
This seemed to be in line with the dramatic pronouncement, while on a state visit to Beijing in 2016, of his “separation from the US … both in military, but also economics”.
The VFA, signed in 1998, makes it possible for US troops as well as their vehicles and equipment to move in and out of Philippine territory. It is a keystone in the countries’ 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty, which commits them to support each other in the event either is attacked by a foreign party.
Duterte has since suspended the cancellation of the agreement three times. On Monday, he told his cabinet he was willing to discuss a renegotiated VFA with the US, saying its extension was “on the table” and that he wanted “to talk to some people in Washington, be it from the office of the president … or the defence department”.
Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the US, last month said an “improved” draft of the VFA had been agreed upon by negotiators from both countries.
“A lot of time has been spent by both countries to discuss some of the things that they wanted to improve in that agreement,” he said at a June 4 joint briefing with the US embassy. “We’re very confident that it will pull through.”
De Castro from De La Salle University said he had received unverified reports that one of the key changes had to do with which country had jurisdiction over US servicemen accused of “heinous crimes”.
He said the draft VFA appeared to have adopted the Australian or Japanese model regarding their Status of Forces Agreement with the US, meaning that “once a US serviceman has been charged in court, the Philippines automatically assumes jurisdiction”.
“If true, that is a feather in Duterte’s cap, because he was able to push for a fairer VFA,” de Castro said.
He added that Duterte was “probably serious” regarding his administration’s separation from the US, but the president later on “also got disappointed with China, which did not fulfil its promise of US$26 billion [worth of investments] that President Xi Jinping committed to”.
De Castro also noted that Washington was wooing Duterte with help in modernising the Philippines’ Armed Forces. The US State Department last month approved the potential sale of more than US$2.5 billion worth of military equipment to the Southeast Asian nation, including 10 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets.
Experts say the sale, which would have to be approved by the US Congress, would also test whether the Duterte administration’s human rights issues would take a back seat to strategic partnerships and interests.
For Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Duterte is “trying to kill two birds with one stone” with the VFA.
Koh on Monday tweeted that Duterte “needs to flash his American card to take Beijing’s heat off his back in the [South China Sea]. But most importantly, [he needs] to curry favour with the [Philippine] military if he seeks support for his 2022 vice-presidential bid.”
Koh was referring to the increasing presence of Chinese militia, coastguard and naval vessels inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, as well as Duterte’s plan to run for vice-president in next year’s elections because he claimed occupying the post would protect him from criminal prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
De Castro said the Philippine military would be “grateful” if Duterte kept his promise to modernise the Armed Forces, and would back his “anointed” presidential candidate in next year’s elections.