Why it matters who owns the seas

VFA: The Philippines says it will not end the US military access agreement amid tensions in the South China Sea

Philippine Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Luxin Jr. said on a social media website on Tuesday that President Rodrigo Duterte decided to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement “in light of political and other developments in the region.”

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

The Philippine government gave the United States 180 days to end the deal in February, indicating that Manila needs to rely on its own resources to defend it. On Tuesday, the United States welcomed the change of heart.

“Our old alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” said a statement issued by the US embassy in Manila.

The Philippines was once home to two of the largest U.S. military bases outside the United States: Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Station.

Although those bases ceased to be US bases in the early 1990s, American forces still had access to them under the Federal Forces Agreement and Manila maintained strong military ties with Washington.

But over the past few years, Duterte has been leaning away from those historical ties with the United States and toward China, which have provided closer economic ties with Manila.

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

Compared with his predecessors, Duterte considered the ongoing Philippine dispute over the South China Sea more negotiable.

The Philippines and China are among many countries with overlapping claims to the sea, or parts of it. China claims nearly 1.3 million square miles in the South China Sea as its own property although other claimants have boundaries much closer to the disputed waters.

Last year, Duterte said he offered Chinese President Xi Jinping a controlling stake in a joint energy deal in exchange for ignoring international arbitration in favor of Manila on the South China Sea.
In 2016, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, and concluded that China had no legal basis to claim historical rights in the greater part of the South China Sea.

However, China is intensifying its military presence on the islands it claims to be Manila.

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

Beijing also made Fiery Cross a part of southern Hainan Province, establishing two new administrative regions covering the South China Sea and their headquarters in the Paracel Islands, another group of islands with disputed claims.

In addition, China has maintained the presence of naval militia ships around Theto Island, the largest Philippine island occupied in the Spratly Archipelago, for more than a year, according to the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative.

An average of about 18 Chinese ships are around the island every day, according to the AMTI satellite analysis released in March, which impedes the Philippines’ attempts to build infrastructure there.

Luxen indicated on Wednesday that the Philippines sees the United States playing a role in the region for some time to come.

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

CNN Sophie Jeong contributed to this report.

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