PH, U.S. armies look to ‘future engagements’ amid Duterte order to scrap VFA

JC Gotinga
Joint activities between Philippine and US forces continue as the Duterte administration moves to terminate the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement

JOINT EXERCISE. Philippine and US soldiers hold counter-terrorism drills in Palawan as part of their Balance Piston 20-1 joint training from January 26 to February 23, 2020. Photo from the Philippine Army

MANILA, Philippines – Top-ranking generals of the Philippine and US armies discussed how to “strengthen their defense capabilities through future engagements” in a yearly bilateral meeting, even as the Philippine government moves to terminate its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.

Philippine Army (PA) chief Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay and US Army Pacific (USARPAC) deputy chief Major General John Johnson held the 8th Executive Steering Group Meeting at the Philippine Army (PA) Headquarters at Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, on Wednesday, January 29, the PA said in a statement on Thursday, January 30.

The PA looks to boost its aviation, air defense, airborne, combat engineer, fires, sustainment operations, cyber security capabilities, as well as its combined arms training methods and doctrine by having exercises and other engagements with the USARPAC.

For the USARPAC, engagements with their Filipino counterparts improve their operational experience in an archipelagic environment such as the Philippines.

The two armies also took up interoperability functions and training gaps learned from previous joint exercises.

“We have come prepared and determined to plan out the next actions that will further strengthen our alliance. I am confident that we are moving in the right direction towards ensuring that the alliance remains strong, dynamic, and relevant,” Gapay said.

Johnson, for his part, said: “Everything we do here should support the mutual defense training and demonstrate the commitment that we have for each other. We learn together, we become more capable and we build trust.” 

Scrap the VFA?

Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered to terminate the VFA over what he said was the US government’s interference in Philippine sovereign affairs. Duterte made the statement a day after Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa confirmed that his US visa had been canceled.

The VFA of 1998, anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, allows for US military presence in the Philippines. The agreement forms the basis of joint military exercises, and security cooperation between the two forces.

The Philippine and US militaries held a total of 281 joint activities in 2019. They planned to hold 300 such activities this year.

The US government’s criticism of Duterte’s violent campaign against illegal drugs and the extrajudicial killings that came with it has angered Duterte, especially when the US Senate resolved to apply the Global Magnitsky Act to Philippine officials involved in the “war on drugs.” Resulting sanctions include the denial or cancellation of their US visas.

The US government also included a similar provision in its 2020 national budget law, condemning the unlawful detention of Senator Leila de Lima, a staunch Duterte critic. The provision denies Philippine officials and personalities involved in De Lima’s case, entry to the US.

Duterte has been criticized for putting the VFA on the line over Dela Rosa’s visa and his administration’s tussles with the US government. Several lawmakers have opposed the agreement’s termination.

Duterte’s Cabinet is still studying the implications and consequences of scrapping the VFA and there is no final word yet if it would indeed be terminated, although Duterte reiterated his order on Wednesday night.

New exercise

On the ground, activities between Philippine and US forces continue.

The PA and the US Army debuted a new joint exercise in Palawan on January 26, and set to run until February 23.

The Balance Piston 20-1 training exercise aims to strengthen the PA’s counter-terrorism capabilities, and to enhance the interoperability between the PA and the US Army, the PA said in a separate media release.

“The Philippine Army continues to support and conduct trainings with its foreign counterparts as it helps ensure that our troops get the necessary exercise to enhance their capabilities in various fields. It also helps develop and strengthen our cooperation with other armies in training and information exchange,” said PA spokesperson Colonel Ramon Zagala.

Balance Piston 20-1 involves the Philippine Army’s 18th Special Forces Company, Special Forces Regiment (Airborne), and the US Army’s 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.