Philippine exit from key US military pact 'suspended'

The move was a sharp turnaround for President Rodrigo Duterte

The Philippines has told the United States it is suspending its bid to break off a key military pact, the two allies said Tuesday in a sharp turnaround of President Rodrigo Duterte's foreign policy.

Duterte in February gave notice to Washington he was axing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) after accusing the US of interference in his internationally condemned narcotics crackdown.

That began a 180-day countdown to ending the deal central to hundreds of joint military exercises with the US per year and a major component of their nearly 70-year-old alliance.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said Tuesday the plan has been put on hold for at least six months.

"The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the president's instruction," Locsin said in a tweet.

The tweet included his diplomatic note informing the US embassy that "in light of political and other developments in the region, the termination of the agreement... is hereby suspended".

The note did not elaborate on the regional developments it referred to, and Duterte's spokesman did not immediately respond to AFP's request for comment.

The US embassy said it "welcomes" the decision, which it said was conveyed on Monday.

"Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defence cooperation with the Philippines," it added.

Duterte has repeatedly threatened to break away from long-standing security ties with the United States, the former colonial power, in favour of closer links with China, a rising superpower and American rival.

His stance has raised concern that the regional balance of power would tilt in Beijing's favour.

Manila's termination of the military pact was to have taken effect in August and was triggered by the cancellation of visa of Ronald Dela Rosa, a current senator who served as the main architect of Duterte's drug war.

US President Donald Trump has dismissed concerns about Manila's plan to abrogate the agreement.

"If they would like to do that, that's fine, we'll save a lot of money," Trump added.

The Philippine military receives significant American training and equipment, obtaining $554.55 million in US security assistance in 2016-2019, Locsin told a Philippine senate hearing in February.

Previous Philippine presidents had built up close ties with the US to deter China's rival claims on South China sea reefs and waters close to the Philippine coast, as well as training and advise to fight Islamic militants.

Duterte has set aside the territorial dispute with Beijing in hopes of wooing billions of dollars of Chinese trade and investment.