MANILA, Philippines – As the Philippines and the US count down to the end of their Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), diplomats from both countries said they would figure out ways to maintain robust bilateral relations.
“The relationship between the Philippines and the United States is far more than just simply VFA and many other things. So while it is an important document that covers our relationship with the United States on a military-to-military basis, I think that moving forward, we will try to find ways to be able to continue that relationship,” Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez said on Tuesday, February 18.
“That, of course, will be a decision that will have to be made by both militaries,” he added, speaking to reporters in a briefing on the sidelines of the annual board meeting of the US-Philippines Society, a group of influential Filipino and American diplomats, businessmen, and other personalities aiming to “raise the profile” of the Philippines in the US.
The VFA, ratified in 1999, gave legal cover for the presence of US military troops and assets in the Philippines, enabling them to hold joint exercises with the Philippine military, provide strategic assistance especially in intelligence and surveillance, and to carry out humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the VFA terminated on February 11, setting off a 180-day interim period until the agreement is finally rescinded. A near-total drawdown of US military troops in the Philippines is expected afterwards.
The move has many Philippine officials, analysts, and citizens concerned that the ensuing vacuum might leave the country vulnerable to security threats, particularly terrorism, and China’s expansionist claims over the West Philippine Sea.
Drawing from the VFA’s own history – a pact entered into a few years after the Philippines voted to shut down US bases on its soil – Romualdez said he was confident that scrapping the military pact will not dampen ties between the treaty allies.
“We’ve always had our friendship with the United States for many years – 70 years of diplomatic relations. There’ve been ups and downs, and there will always be. But somehow, we come out of that better and stronger, so that’s where we are and that’s where we want to continue. We will have a strong, vibrant relationship with the United States,” the envoy said.
Asked whether there will be room to renegotiate or reinstate the VFA during the 6-month interim, Romualdez indicated that the termination is likely final, and the question is what new arrangement would be arrived at in the future.
“It’s really more like, ‘What are we going to do from here?’ I’m sure there will be something else worked out,” he added.
US-Philippines Society president John Maisto, an ambassador once posted in the Philippines and who’s handled Philippine affairs in Washington, said the two countries will likely “hammer something out” after the VFA ends.
“We know that Filipinos and Americans like and trust each other, and we’re going to build on that, and the relationship will move forward,” Maisto said, citing opinion surveys that show the US having consistently high trust ratings among Filipinos.
Philippine ties with its former colonizer have long been fraught with complaints of disparity, with the former colony disadvantaged in deals it signs with the US, according to critics.
Although it appears Duterte scrapped the VFA merely because the US cancelled the visa of his political ally Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa as an apparent sanction for human rights violations, Romualdez believes the move was “bound to happen sooner or later.”
The Philippines, as a nation learning to assert itself more strongly in the global arena, would naturally seek better arrangements with other countries, especially one that’s had great influence over it like the US.
“I really believe in our relationship [with the United States]. We cannot ignore the United States. It’s a superpower. Just like we cannot ignore China,” Romualdez said.
If anything, the pullout of American troops will likely force Filipinos, especially the military, to strive for self-sufficiency in terms of defense and national security.
“We always have to look at it from the point of view of what’s really best in the long run. Kasi masyado tayong laging, ‘Andiyan naman sila eh (Because we’re always saying, ‘They’re there for us anyway). It’s not good for us,” the Filipino envoy added. – Rappler.com