President Rodrigo Duterte had decided to retain the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) “in light of political and other developments in the region,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Tuesday in a post on social media.
The agreement, signed in 1988, gives US military planes and vessels free entry to the Philippines and relaxes visa restrictions for US military personnel.
“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 United States Embassy in Manila.
The Philippines was home to two of the largest United States military bases outside of the United States: Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station.
Although those 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 to Washington.
But in recent years, Duterte has moved away from those historical ties to the United States and to China, which has offered a closer economic relationship with Manila.
“I need China. More than anyone right now, I need China,” Duterte said before flying to China in April 2018.
Compared to his predecessors, Duterte has seen the Philippines’ ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea as more negotiable.
Both the Philippines and China are among several nations with overlapping claims to the sea, or parts of it. China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea as its own despite other claimants having borders that are much closer to the disputed waters.
China, however, has intensified its military presence on the islands also claimed by Manila.
In the past two months, the People’s Liberation Army has moved advanced anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance aircraft to Fiery Cross Reef, known as Kagitingan in the Philippines, in the Spratly Islands chain.
Beijing also made Fiery Cross part of its southern Hainan province, creating two new administrative districts covering the Paracel Islands-based South China Sea, another group of islands with disputed claims.
An average of 18 Chinese ships have been around the island each day, according to an AMTI satellite analysis published in March, hindering attempts by the Philippines to build infrastructure there.
On Wednesday, Locsin said the Philippines sees the United States play a role in the region for some time.
“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States, even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies to build a common defense towards lasting stability, peace and continued economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world.” said.
CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this report.