Can PH defend itself without U.S. help? We can, we will, we should – AFP

JC Gotinga
The die is cast, says the military

TREATY ALLIES. Filipino and American soldiers during the annual Balikatan joint military exercises. Rappler file photo

MANILA, Philippines – Counting down to a mass exit of American troops from the Philippines, its armed forces said the country can survive without help from the US military.

A day after President Rodrigo Duterte defended his decision to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) issued a statement on Thursday, February 27, backing up its Commander-in-Chief.

“Can we survive militarily without the US?…. It bears repeating: We can survive; we will; we should,” said AFP Spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo.

“We – soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines – are toeing the line of the Commander-in-Chief and President Rodrigo Duterte towards self-reliance,” Arevalo added, noting the “relatively and modestly modern AFP we have now.”

Besides, “the die is cast,” the marine general quipped. Duterte’s order on February 11 giving the US government notice of his decision to repeal the VFA had set off the mandatory 180-day countdown to US troops’ exit.

We’ve been there before

“We struggled but survived the period from 1991 to 1998, when the Military Bases Agreement was no longer renewed,” Arevalo pointed out.

The lapse of the bases deal meant the US no longer had legal cover for their presence on Philippine soil, and forced them to vacate the Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in 1991.

What followed was a period of minimal US military presence in the Philippines, albeit the two countries’ treaty alliance continued.

In 1995, China moved in and occupied Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the West Philippine Sea, reviving the generations-old territorial dispute among countries surrounding the South China Sea. (The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.)

In 1999, the Philippines and the US signed the VFA to give US troops a legal basis to enter and move around the Philippine territory.

The agreement paved the way for yearly series of joint military exercises and trainings, and cooperation in counterterrorism, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief operations.

With the VFA out, these trainings and other activities between the two militaries will cease, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said days after the deal’s repeal.

A number of senior officers of the AFP had told reporters of their opposition to the VFA’s termination, but in the end they would follow the chain of command.

“With the abrogation of the VFA, we assure our countrymen that we will again, as our forebears did in their time, valiantly face contemporary threats to national security, terrorism, and other transnational crimes,” Arevalo said on Thursday.

‘Deliberate’

“Do we need America to survive as a nation?” Duterte posed the question on Wednesday afternoon, February 26, as he defended scrapping the VFA.

Although Duterte revived his longstanding threat to withdraw from the deal following the cancellation of his ally Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s US visa – an apparent sanction for human rights violations in his war on drugs – Duterte insisted on Wednesday that it was a “deliberate” move and not merely a “knee-jerk reaction.”

Downplaying the importance of the military alliance with the US, Duterte said the Philippines might as well become a “colony of the Americans or a province of China” if it cannot secure itself with just its own military.

His decision to withdraw from the VFA contravened recommendations from lawmakers and even members of his own Cabinet to thoroughly review the agreement and the consequences of its termination before deciding whether or not to keep it.

For instance, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said the rotational presence of the US military in the Philippines has served as a deterrent to China’s aggressive, expansionist plans in the West Philippine Sea.

In 2019, the Philippine Navy (PN) faced a tough challenge from Chinese vessels, including warships, criss-crossing Philippine territorial waters. Outmuscled by China’s navy and outnumbered by its militias, the PN now races to acquire new warships and train its sailors and marines to achieve a credible naval defense posture.

On Thursday, Arevalo echoed an earlier statement by AFP chief General Felimon Santos Jr – that the Philippines can “move on” without the VFA, because anyway, the AFP is modernizing – slowly but surely. – Rappler.com