MANILA, Philippines – Choosing between the U.S. and China is a “false choice” that President Rodrigo Duterte is forcing the country to make. He is eliminating other options to improve the country’s security posture, said former Supreme Court senior associate Antonio Carpio.
The legal luminary who has championed an aggressive legal strategy towards China to protect Philippine territory offered a 3rd way: alliances.
“It is not true we should either be a Chinese province or a US territory. We can have alliances. Collective self-defense is allowed,” Carpio said on Friday, February 28, in a forum in Makati that tackled Duterte’s move to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US.
Carpio has been supportive of multi-country cooperation in protecting the Philippines’ security interests, a strategy the country has put in place by strengthening alliances with the US, Australia, Japan, and other countries supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
This strategy is threatened after the Philippines, upon orders from Duterte, sent notice on February 11 to the US that it is terminating the VFA. It’s a move that has caused widespread concern over the country’s security posture, given US’s role in protecting the West Philippine Sea and the country’s fight against radical extremism.
The termination will take effect after 180 days, although Philippine Ambasador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said Friday the “door is not totally shut.”
“It is a national tragedy that should be resisted,” said former foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario.
The VFA is a security mechanism that allows and regulates the rotating presence of US troops in the Philippines. It was signed in 1998 to fill gaps in the country’s security posture after the country evicted US bases in the country.
The VFA allows joint exercises between Philippine and US troops, providing an operations framework for the mother treaty between the countries – the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) – that binds them to come to each other’s aid when necessary.
Regular exercises between the two militaries resulted in familiarity that has allowed the US to provide immediate assistance, for example, in the aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013 and Marawi siege in 2017.
Hollow MDT, useless EDCA
Carpio said the MDT will be hollow if VFA is terminated because there can no longer be military-to-military exercises if US troops are not allowed in the country.
Carpio said terminating the VFA will also make another security pact with the US “useless” – the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – because there will be no more US troops to build and maintain facilities that the country wanted to preposition in the country.
EDCA was signed during the previous Aquino administration amid security challenges from China. It was intended to allow the Americans to preposition war assets in the country in the hope to deter China.
Critics of VFA termination noted how China in the 1990s managed to occupy the Mischief Reef, a maritime feature inside the country’s exclusive economic zone, shortly after the US bases in the Philippines were shut down.
Duterte has called for the termination of VFA as early as his presidential campaign in 2016, arguing that the Philippines should have an independent foreign policy.
Carpio argued that Duterte’s foreign policy is turning the country to be “dependent” on China and a “protectorate” of Russia.
On the other hand, Del Rosario said: “We do not believe that one man alone can make this damaging choice for our people.”
Hope for VFA?
It will take 180 days to terminate the treaty. This months-long reprieve has raised hopes that Duterte could be prevailed upon to change his mind and keep the VFA.
This is possible, said Ambassador Romualdez in the same forum. “From what I’m told, the door is not totally shut,” he said.
Romualdez said the VFA may be polished or another agreement could take its place. “I’m confident that our relationship with US will continue,”he said.
Former defense chief Orlando Mercado said the reprieve could be used as opportunity to improve the country’s relationship with the US. The Philippines has repeatedly pushed for a review of the VFA, following controversies over its implementation, but it had been met with disinterest on the part of US.
Despite current corcerns about the termination of the VFA, Mercado said there is an opportunity to “carve a new relationship with our only treaty ally.”
“We can turn this bad thing into a good thing,” said Mercado.
The defense establishment said planned exercises between the Philippine and US militaries will continue until the VFA is terminated in less than 6 months.
The Philippine military has proclaimed support for Duterte’s foreign policy and said the country could stand on its own. (READ: Can PH defend itself with US help? We can, we will, we should – AFP)
But Mercado said military officers he had met expressed that “they turly feel the need” for VFA.
‘Public opinion matters’
Professor Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, lamented how Duterte ignored public opinion when he decided to terminate VFA and chose to pursue an “appeasement policy” towards China. He cited several public opinion surveys showing Filipinos have overwhelming trust in the US.
“Public opinion matters,” Manhit said. Government exists for the Filipino people. These (survey) data tells us where Filipinos stand on this issue,” said Manhit.
Duterte ignored expert opinion, too. A Senate hearing on the VFA showed unanimous support coming from officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of National Defense, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. – Rappler.com