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VFA: Philippines says it will not conclude US military access agreement amid South China sea tensions

President Rodrigo Duterte had decided to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) “in the light of political and other developments in the region,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a social media post Tuesday.

The agreement, signed in 1988, gives US military aircraft and ships free entry into the Philippines and relaxes visa restrictions for US military personnel.

The Philippine government gave the United States 180 days notice to close the deal in February, suggesting that Manila needed to rely on its own resources for its defense. On Tuesday, the United States welcomed the change of heart.

“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries and we look forward to continuing close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,”

; said a statement from the US Embassy in Manila.

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

Although they ceased to be US bases in the early 1990s, US forces still had access to them under the VFA and Manila maintained strong military ties with Washington.

But in recent years, Duterte has teared away historical ties with the United States and with China, which has offered a closer economic relationship with Manila.

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

Compared to its predecessors, Duterte has regarded the Philippines’ ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea as more negotiable.

Both the Philippines and China belong to several countries with overlapping requirements at sea or parts of it. China claims almost the entire South China Sea’s 1.3 million square miles as its own, even though other claimants have boundaries far closer to the disputed waters.

Last year, Duterte said he had been offered a controlling stake in a joint energy deal by Chinese President Xi Jinping in exchange for ignoring an international arbitration in Manila’s favor for the South China Sea.
In 2016, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China has no legal basis for claiming historical rights to the majority of the South China Sea.

However, China has increased its military presence on islands that are also claimed by Manila.

For the past two months, the People’s Liberation Army has moved advanced war and reconnaissance aircraft towards Fiery Cross, known as the Kagitingan in the Philippines, in the Spratly Islands chain.

Beijing has also made Fiery Cross a part of southern Hainan Province and created two new administrative districts covering the South China Sea, headquartered in Paracel Islands, another archipelago island with disputed claims.

In addition, China has maintained a presence of maritime militia vessels around Thitu Island, the largest Philippine-occupied island in the Spratly archipelago, for over a year, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

An average of 18 Chinese vessels have been around the island each day, according to an AMTI satellite analysis published in March, which hinders Philippine attempts to build infrastructure there.

On Wednesday, Locsin indicated that the Philippines sees the United States playing a role in the region for a long time to come.

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

CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this report.

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