South China Sea news: Huge blow for Beijing as Philippines stick with US military pact | World | News

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced surprise move and posted a copy of a letter that his department had sent to the US Embassy in Manila about the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The climbdown comes after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to pull his country out of the bilateral agreement earlier this year.

We look forward to continued close security and defence cooperation with the Philippines

US Embassy spokesman

In the letter, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs indicated its decision in February to scrap the VFA was “hereby suspended” due to “political and other developments in the region”.

Mr Locsin said he had issued the diplomatic note to the US envoy to Manila and it had “been received by Washington, and well at that.”

He said: “The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the president’s instruction.”

South China Sea

Philippines and US troops take part in joint South China Sea drills (Image: GETTY)

The US Embassy said it welcomed the development.

A spokesman said: “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defence cooperation with the Philippines.”

Mr Duterte had threatened to terminate the pact with Washington after Senator Ronald dela Rosa, a former national police chief who had led the Duterte administration’s controversial war on illegal drugs, said US officials had revoked his American visa.

The VFA has allowed large-scale joint military drills with US forces, which defence analysts said were vital to the Philippines as it faces a challenge from China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

READ MORE:China’s plan for South China Sea air defence revealed in shock move

South China Sea

Manilla has suspended plans to pull out of a defence pact with the US military (Image: GETTY)

The strategic waterway is at the centre of an increasingly bitter diplomatic feud with China’s claims to full entitlement disputed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a code of conduct to regulate behaviour in the South China Sea.

But Beijing has stepped up its militarisation of the region and in response the US has carried out freedom of navigation flights and naval movements.

Defence analysts fear both sides are risking full-on military confrontation as their high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse intensifies in the South China Sea.

South China Sea

Tensions are soaring in the South China Sea (Image: GETTY)

The two economic superpowers have ramped up their war of words with rows erupting over everything from trade deals, coronavirus, Huawei and now Beijing’s controversial crackdown on Hong Kong.

But the disputed waters of the South China Sea remains the key flashpoint where warships and fighter planes regularly coming dangerously close to each other.

Analysts say a military conflict would probably be devastating for both and there are no signs that either side actually wants one.

But they warn in times of high tension, miscalculations can have unintended and potentially disastrous consequences.

In the first four months of the year the US Navy conducted four freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

China’s navy has steamed back out of port in Hainan and resumed drills in the area after emerged from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak.

And with Donald Trump just months from a tough election and President Xi Jinping desperate to distract from a badly damaged economy, the noises coming out of Washington and Beijing sound more like sabre-rattling than calm diplomacy.

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South China Sea

US and Filipino warships conduct joint naval drills in the South China Sea (Image: GETTY)

Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said: “I do worry about this situation.

“The US-China relationship is in free fall now, pushed by the hardliners from both sides.

“No doubt, the new Cold War between the two is escalating, and now people begin to worry about the possibility of a hot war, a regional one.”

“Even worse, there is no force to cool them down. Nations in Southeast Asia are too small compared to the two great powers.”

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