MANILA — In a strategic setback for China, the Philippines government reversed itself Tuesday and said it would maintain a longstanding military pact with the United States that President Rodrigo Duterte has criticized as unfair.
The Philippine foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin, made Tuesday’s announcement over Twitter, saying that he had informed Washington in a diplomatic note. The decision not to terminate the agreement was made “in light of political and other developments in the region,” Mr. Locsin said in the diplomatic note, without elaboration.
The United States welcomed the reversal. “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” the United States Embassy in Manila said in a statement.
Political analysts interpreted the reversal as a sign that China’s neighbors are worried about its growing military assertiveness. The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia all have disputes with China about its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Some analysts saw the reversal as a strategic gain for the United States, given that the Philippines is the only U.S. treaty ally bordering the South China Sea, a vital maritime shipping route.
“In light of China’s continued assertion of its historic rights in Vietnamese and Malaysian waters over the last year, Manila may have concluded that its previous rapprochement with Beijing would not protect Philippine interests,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a political-science professor who is director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it remained unclear how the move by the Philippines to at least temporarily prolong the pact, known as the Visiting Forces Agreement, would affect the country’s South China Sea policy. But she also saw it as a setback for China.
“Beijing has long sought to weaken U.S. alliances, and has benefited from the friction in recent years in U.S.-Philippine relations,” she said. “So a decision by Manila to suspend plans to terminate the V.F.A. will be seen as contrary to Chinese interests.”
There was no immediate comment from China on the Philippines’s decision.
In February, Mr. Duterte had ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, endangering a security blanket for the Philippines, which has been facing increasingly hostile Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Under the agreement, Washington and Manila had 180 days after the issuance of a termination notice — until August, in this case — to try to salvage the deal.
The pact permitted the United States military to conduct large-scale joint exercises in the Philippines, decades after the Americans were evicted from naval bases north of Manila because of lease disagreements.
Mr. Duterte’s decision to end the military alliance had followed Washington’s refusal to grant a visa to the Philippine lawmaker, Ronald dela Rosa, the early architect of Mr. Duterte’s violent war against drugs.
The notice to terminate the Visiting Forces…