Contention over South China Sea

What is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)

Mains level : VFA and its significance for the US

Security issue in the disputed South China Sea has helped convince the Philippines to delay quitting a key U.S. military pact called the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Practice question for mains:

Q. What’s behind diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea? How it is set to become another flashpoint between the US and China?

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)

  • A VFA is a version of a status of forces agreement that only applies to troops temporarily in a country.
  • The US military operates around the world thanks to Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) in 100 or so countries.
  • Similarly, the VFA spells out the rules, guidelines and legal status of the US military when operating in the Philippines.
  • The VFA also affirms the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty as well as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — agreements that enable the U.S. military to conduct joint exercises and operations in the Philippines.
  • It came into force on May 27, 1999, upon ratification by the Senate of the Philippines.
  • It also exempts U.S. military personnel from visa and passport regulations in the Philippines.

Significance of VFA

  • Both the US and Philippines remain wary of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS). The VFA, therefore, act as an insurance policy against Chinese threats.
  • Terminating the VFA would leave the U.S. military without any legal or operational standing in the Philippines — and that’s a problem for the alliance.
  • Without a VFA, the U.S. military would not be able to support either of these defence agreements.

Philippines-China spat on SCS

  • The Philippines has had diplomatic spats with China over the Scarborough Shoal and Spratlys in particular.
  • It says China’s “nine-dash line”, which China uses to demarcate its territorial claims, is unlawful under the UNCLOS convention.
  • The SCS is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

Back2Basics: South China Sea Row

  • It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.
  • China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims.
  • Alongside the fully-fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
  • China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
  • Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims.
  • It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

Spat over Chinese claims

  • China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols.
  • The US says it does not take sides in territorial disputes but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.
  • Both sides have accused each other of “militarizing” the South China Sea.
  • There are fears that the area is becoming a flashpoint, with potentially serious global consequences.

With inputs from Washington Post

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