June 14 (UPI) -- The Visiting Forces Agreement keeping U.S. troops in the Philippines was extended on Monday for six more months.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced plans to abrogate the agreement in February 2020, but the termination process was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic and new potential threats from China in the South China Sea.
The VFA, set to expire in August 2021, is the legal framework for the presence of American troops in the Philippines, as well as for joint military exercises between the two countries and visits to Philippine ports by U.S. warships.
The extension came after Jose Manuel Romualdez, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, said officials of the two countries had worked to improve the VFA, and days after 2.2 million COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the Philippines from the United States.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on Monday that Duterte extended the deadline "while both sides address his concerns regarding particular aspects of the agreement."
The U.S. Defense Department, in a brief announcement on Monday, supported the extension.
"The Department welcomes the Government of the Philippines' decision to again suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement," it read in part. "We value the Philippines as an equal, sovereign partner in our bilateral alliance."
The military relationship between the two countries dates to the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. Increased military cooperation came with the VFA in 1998.
A Philippine activist group, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, also known as Bayan, called for termination of the agreement last week, calling it a violation of national sovereignty and stressing that U.S. military equipment given to the Philippines could be used by the Dutarte administration against Philippine citizens.
"The VFA termination must not also be used as leverage to get more U.S. military aid that will be used for counter-insurgency and human rights violations," Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said in a statement.