MANILA – The Philippines and the United States made a renewed commitment to strengthen their partnership in various areas of mutual interest following a meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Malacañang on July 29.

President Duterte and Secretary Austin had “an open and frank discussion” on the status and future direction of Philippines-US engagement during a 75-minute courtesy call of the US defense secretary on the President, according to a Malacanang statement.

Later, it was reported that Duterte agreed to restore the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and the Philippines governing the presence of US troops in the Philippines,  reversing a decision that had caused increasing concern in Washington and Manila.

The President’s retraction of the termination of the VFA was announced by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana during a press conference with visiting US Defense Secretary Austin.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque confirmed the President’s decision on the VFA.

“The President’s decision to recall the abrogation of VFA is based on upholding the Philippines’ strategic core interests, the clear definition of Philippines-United States alliance as one between sovereign equals, and clarity of US position on its obligations and commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Roque said.

The VFA provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises. It has assumed additional importance as the United States and its allies contend with an increasingly assertive China.

Last year, Duterte said he cancelling the VFA because the US cancelled the visa of Sen. Ronaldo dela Rosa, a former Philippine National Police chief, but he extended it until December,

For the United States, having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defense of the Philippines, but strategically when it comes to countering China’s assertive behavior in the region.

“They agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments,” the statement said.

The President expressed his gratitude to the US government for its assistance in the country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX vaccine sharing program, where the US is the largest contributor.

The Philippines has so far received more than 3 million vaccine doses under World Health Organization-led facility.

Secretary Austin, for his part, expressed his great respect for the Filipino people, underscoring America’s intention of forging a strong relationship with the Philippines as an equal sovereign partner.

During the meeting, Austin relayed US President Joe Biden’s greetings to the Filipino leader, with the President also conveying his well wishes for his US counterpart.

The US defense chief’s official visit in Manila from July 29 to 30 coincides with the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations of the US and the Philippines and the 70th Anniversary of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty this year.

Aside from meeting the President, Austin is also scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

Austin’s meeting with the President is a first for a Cabinet member of the Biden administration.

Prior to visiting the Philippines, the US defense secretary made stops in Singapore and Vietnam in a tour aimed at bolstering ties with Southeast Asian nation