Philippines' Duterte says still undecided on future of U.S. troop deal

FILE PHOTO: President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after his arrival, from a visit in Israel and Jordan at Davao International airport in Davao City in southern Philippines, September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr./File Photo

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he has not made a decision yet on the future of the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, leaving the fate of the pact hanging in the balance.

Duterte has said the United States should pay more if it wants to maintain the VFA, which he unilaterally cancelled last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a U.S. visa.

The withdrawal period has been twice extended, however, to create what Philippine officials say is a window for better terms to be agreed.

“I have not yet decided on what to do, to abrogate or renew,” Duterte said in a late-night televised address on Wednesday. “I want to hear the people. I want narratives to come.”

The militaries of the two countries enjoy close ties, forged during decades of joint exercises that have boosted the capability of Philippine forces while giving the United States an important foothold in a region where China’s power and influence is growing.

Defence officials from both countries are trying to salvage the VFA, which underpins the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Duterte has threatened to scrap all of them.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stressed the importance of the long-standing defense treaty between the allies and its clear application if Manila came under attack in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Duterte’s remarks.

Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Mark Heinrich