But will this decision actually mark a significant break from the United States and its military? The answer is unclear, and even if it does, it may not mean the Philippines is free from having a foreign overlord.
No other country, except perhaps Spain, is as linked to the Philippines as the United States. For decades, the United States ruled over the Philippines because, along with Puerto Rico and Guam, it became a U.S. territory with the signing of the 1898 Treaty of Paris and the defeat of the Filipino forces fighting for independence during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. (While not officially called a colony, this distinction was meaningless in reality.)
Even after the Philippines was recognized as a sovereign nation in 1946, the United States retained control through unequal agreements that benefited the United States and its citizens at the expense of Filipinos. For example, the 1946 Bell Trade Act granted U.S. citizens and corporations parity with Filipinos regarding access to Philippine materials and resources, pegged the Philippine peso to the U.S. dollar and gave the United States preferential tariffs.
The United States also exerted control through its military bases, two of which would become the American military’s largest overseas bases, following a 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA) between the two countries. The United States maintained rights and responsibilities over whatever water, air and land was necessary to construct, maintain and control these facilities, and could import and export goods tax-free within the bases, among other stipulations. The United States also was “to take such steps as may be mutually agreed upon to be necessary to improve health and sanitation in areas contiguous to the bases,” including, if need be, entering and inspecting any privately owned property, which explicitly extended U.S. rights to outside the base.
In 1992, the Philippine Senate failed to ratify an extension of the MBA, which was set to expire. Although some claimed that the Philippines kicked out the U.S. military, finally exerting sovereignty over its former colonial overlord, U.S. forces never really left. Instead, they remained in the Philippines on a visiting basis, rather than having a permanent physical presence.
This visiting presence was due to the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which outlined the rights and responsibilities of the United States regarding American military personnel in the Philippines. The VFA was hotly contested in the Philippine court system and among activists, because it was not “concurred in by the Senate” nor were national referendums held, both of which are stipulations written in the 1987 Philippine Constitution regarding foreign military presence. Although Filipino judges ruled that the VFA was constitutional, controversy continued to surround it and U.S. military personnel in the Philippines.
The significance of the VFA controversy became clear after several high-profile criminal cases, including the 2006 alleged rape of a Filipina with the pseudonym Nicole by U.S. serviceman Daniel Smith and the 2014 killing of Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipina, by U.S. serviceman Joseph Pemberton. There was a struggle over which country maintained custody of the accused before, during and after their trials, and which country could dictate the terms of their detainment. The VFA theoretically covered such eventualities, but ambiguities enabled U.S. officials to detain Smith even though Philippine officials requested custody.
Provisions delineating who governs personnel is common in agreements such as the VFA. For example, the 1951 Agreement Between Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty Regarding the Status of their Forces has similar stipulations regarding whether, and under what circumstances, the host or sending state has jurisdiction over the sending state’s military forces. In that context, this sort of stipulation may seem to have little relation to colonialism.
But scholars have argued that U.S. overseas military bases are arms of informal empire, because of the power imbalance between the United States and most host nations. In the case of the U.S.-Philippine relationship, the power imbalance is even more pronounced given the formal colonial history between the two nations. These clauses regarding custody and detention play into that coercive relationship because they directly limit the sovereignty of the Philippines to make decisions regarding criminal procedures within its geopolitical borders.
Furthermore, despite both men being found guilty, a Philippine court of appeals overturned the guilty verdict in Smith’s case, ruling that there was insufficient evidence of rape. This ruling followed Nicole’s recantation of her accusations. The court specifically said they did not take Nicole’s recantation into account in the decision, and there was no direct public evidence that the United States intervened. Nonetheless, Nicole permanently left the Philippines to reside in the United States afterward, something she needed proper authorization and documents to do.
This led many Filipinos to cry foul, as Filipino migration to the United States has a long imperial history and remains an important part of the Philippine economy. They saw the reversal of Smith’s guilty verdict as evidence that the Philippines continued to be subservient to the United States, despite being a sovereign nation-state for almost 50 years.
When Duterte announced he was terminating the VFA, many Filipinos saw it as the latest step in the quest for Philippine sovereignty. But as these previous steps revealed, it might well end up amounting to far less than it seems.
For starters, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. seemed to imply in a tweet that this was a bargaining tactic intended to force the United States into an unspecified concession. Duterte does have a history of threatening U.S.-Philippine military trainings but not following through on those threats. However, this announcement was not just an off-the-cuff statement to the media. It came through official channels and specified the 180-day notice that is required when one party terminates the agreement.
What happens next will reveal Duterte’s motives. The VFA is just one of many military and defense-related agreements between the two nation-states. Whether Duterte tries to extricate his nation from the remaining agreements will signal whether the Philippines is determined to finally be free of its former colonial master.
Even if Duterte makes such a move — and is successful — it may not mean the Philippines is free of outside interference. Withdrawing from all U.S.-Philippine military agreements would leave a large gap in funds and training for the Philippine Armed Forces, and Duterte would need to come up with replacement resources.
One possibility: The president has long courted China. He decided not to pursue The Hague’s decision rejecting China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines has historically claimed sovereignty over, in part because Chinese President Xi Jinping offered the Philippines a deal in exchange for ignoring the ruling. But Chinese aid runs the real serious risk that the Philippines trades one overlord for another.
For the Philippines to truly move forward as a sovereign nation, officials need to build up its own economy and defense, and not turn to outside forces to fill these gaps.