President Donald Trump is downplaying the Philippine government’s notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that allows American troops to train in the Southeast Asian country, saying such a move will save the U.S. “a lot of money.”
"My view is a different than other people. I view it as, ‘thank you very much, we save a lot of money,’” Trump told reporters Wednesday
"Three years ago, when ISIS was over running the Philippines, we came in and literally single-handedly were able to save them from vicious attacks on their islands,” Trump said, using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group. The U.S. president added he has “very good” relations with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
"We’ll see what happens. They'll have to tell me that,” Trump said.
President Duterte gave formal notice to the United States of his decision to scrap the VFA late Monday, after repeated threats to downgrade the two countries’ military alliance. The 1998 agreement provides legal permission for thousands of U.S. troops who rotate into the Philippines for dozens of military and humanitarian assistance exercises each year.
In a speech late Monday, Duterte said Trump had tried to save the agreement but that he (Duterte) had rejected it.
"America is very rude. They are so rude,” the Philippine leader said.
Trump’s statement contradicts his Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who on Tuesday said that dissolving the bilateral agreement with the Philippines “would be a move in the wrong direction.”
Esper said the termination, set to take effect in 180 days, runs counter to bilateral efforts with the Philippines and collective efforts with regional allies to push China toward abiding by international norms in the region.
"As we try to bolster our presence and compete with [China] in this era of great-power competition, I think it’s a move in the wrong direction, again for the long-standing relationship we’ve had with the Philippines, for their strategic location, for the ties between our peoples and our countries,” the U.S. defense secretary said on route to Brussels.
Duterte has indicated he favors relations with China and Russia over ties with the U.S. His spokesman said Tuesday the reason for terminating the VFA was to allow the Philippines military to be more independent.
Analysts are warning that the termination of the security pact would deliver a serious blow to U.S. credibility as a regional security provider to counter China's influence, and weaken U.S. counterterror and intelligence gathering capacity in the region.
The VFA termination would effectively do away with the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines and render the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries largely hollow, said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Poling added that despite the Pentagon stepping up military engagement throughout the region, the Trump administration has seriously undermined U.S. diplomacy in the region.
"As a result, public sentiment and the opinions of policymakers throughout Southeast Asia have shifted sharply against the United States,” said Poling. “Today only Vietnam unreservedly sees the United States as the major player in the region and supports its efforts to push back against China.”
VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb in Brussels and VOA's Steve Miller in Washington contributed to this report.