By Charmaine A. Tadalan and Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporters

THE global coronavirus pandemic has given the US government much reprieve after Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte delayed the termination of a military agreement on troop deployment, which he finds to be a distraction to the world’s anti-COVID-19 efforts.

The visiting forces agreement (VFA), which allows the US to shield its servicemen from prosecution in the Philippines, has been a thorny issue for Filipino patriots who see it as a lopsided deal. The US has used the VFA at least twice to keep accused soldiers under its jurisdiction.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusTake the case of US soldier Daniel J. Smith, who was accused of raping a Filipina in Subic, Zambales north of Manila in 2005. A year later, a Philippine court convicted and sentenced him to jail for life, only for him to be transferred to the US Embassy after a deal between the two allied countries.

His custody transfer sparked protests especially among critics who argued that Filipinos have become second-class citizens in their own country because of the one-sided military pact.

More than a decade later, the deal is again in the spotlight after Mr. Duterte officially informed the US in February of his decision to end the military pact, but critics said he did so for all the wrong reasons.

Foremost was the US decision to cancel the visa of Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, the President’s trusted ally and former police chief who implemented his deadly war on drugs.

“The coronavirus pandemic is creating a situation where smaller states have been unable to respond to contingencies in the South China Sea,” Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said by telephone.

Mr. Batongbacal said Mr. Duterte might have ordered the suspension as the former US colony got preoccupied with dealing with the virus and to keep China, which has taken advantage of the global health crisis to consolidate its control of the disputed waterway, in check.

“Duterte is probably using the suspension of the military pact as a leverage against the US,” he said, adding that the Philippines could still lobby for a better deal.

Ending the VFA complicates Washington’s efforts to maintain an Asia-Pacific troop presence amid friction over the presence of US personnel in Japan and South Korea and security concerns about China and North Korea.

Washington has called the relationship “ironclad” despite Mr. Duterte’s complaints that include allegations of US hypocrisy and ill treatment.

Some Philippine lawmakers are concerned that without the VFA, two other pacts that make up the long-standing US alliance with Manila would be irrelevant, namely the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement made under the Obama administration, and a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Three American aircraft carriers had been patrolling the Indo-Pacific waters for the first time in nearly three years, a massive show of naval force in a region roiled by spiking tensions between the US and China, the Associated Press reported on June 12.

The patrol of the three warships, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircraft came as the US escalated criticism of China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, its moves to impose greater control over Hong Kong and its island-building activities in the disputed sea.

The VFA allows the US Navy and Air Force to operate in the South China Sea more effectively because they can stay there longer, Mr. Batongbacal said. Otherwise, US forces would have to come from Guam or Japan to patrol the area and won’t be able to use the country’s ports for resupply, he added.

“The VFA and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement also allow us now to build up our external defense capabilities in ways that were never specified in any agreement before,” Mr. Batongbacal said.

Political analyst Malcolm Cook, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s senior visiting fellow in Sydney, said the VFA has been critical to Philippine military operations especially in the Mindanao region.

“No VFA would remove the legal basis for the deployment of US military advisers in Mindanao and major exercises between the Philippine and US armed forces,” he said in a  July 2 e-mail. “The Marawi siege would have been worse without the VFA.”

“I would go further, if the Duterte administration terminates the visiting forces agreement with the US, it would rewind history to the period after the Philippine Senate terminated the US bases in the Philippines in 1991,” Mr. Cook said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. told the Senate at the start of the year the Philippines received $267.75 million in military funding from the US between 2016 and 2019. The US had planned to spend more than $200 million in military aid in the two years through 2021, he added.

Manila must either strengthen its military or rely more on China, said Herman Joseph S. Kraft, a political science professor and head of UP’s Political Science department.

“We could strengthen our military and foreign policy and adopt a more independent stance,” he said by telephone last month. “That means investing more in the military to be able to defend our sovereignty.”

The Philippines could do away with the VFA without breaking up with the US given China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea, said Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University.

“It’s not the end of everything, but the US government would find it very difficult to deploy their forces here if they’re not provided legal guarantee,” he said by telephone.

Mr. De Castro said the Mutual Defense Treaty is the “most important” out of all the agreements it has with the US because a board created by the pact determines the number of military exercises to be held.

He added that the Philippines might be inclined to replace the deal with a “more equitable” one, similar to the country’s defense pact with Australia, once the suspension is lifted.

Mr. Duterte is bent on ending the pact despite a United States offer to fix the visa of Mr. De la Rosa, presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque told an online news briefing last month.

“Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has continued,” Mr. De Castro said. “In fact, it has become more intense since the pandemic.”

“I think this really rattled the government despite its efforts to please and appease China,” he said.

A Chinese-owned vessel in February allegedly pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship, while China has announced plans to set up two districts in Paracel and Spratly Islands, prompting the Duterte government to fire off diplomatic protests.

“These developments convinced the Duterte administration that it could not simply drop our alliance with the United States,” Mr. De Castro said.

“I think the visiting forces agreement won’t be terminated,” he said. “It will be replaced by a more equitable status of forces agreement similar to our pact with Australia.”

The Philippine Supreme Court in 2009 said Mr. Smith, the American soldier, must be held in a local prison, as it ruled keeping him at the US Embassy in Manila violated the military accord.

Mr. Smith was eventually spirited out of the country shortly after he was acquitted that same year after his victim retracted.