MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to suspend the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, which would have forced American troops out of the Philippines by August.
In a statement on Wednesday, June 3, Lorenzana said the Department of National Defense (DND) “supports the decision to suspend the abrogation” of the VFA.
“The Philippine defense establishment is ready to continue working closely with our US counterparts to find solutions to common concerns such as the ongoing pandemic that has greatly affected both our countries,” Lorenzana said.
“The DND and AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will continue to consult with the Office of the Presidential Commission on Visiting Forces on issues that need to be addressed,” he added.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, the defense chief said military exercises and other activities between Filipino and American forces that would have ceased without the VFA will now continue.
“I am happy to continue our relationship with America,” he said in the televised interview.
Lorenzana said he spoke “briefly” about suspending the VFA’s termination with Duterte and his aide Senator Bong Go about a month ago.
“I think [the President] said it’s not timely to end the VFA because of what’s happening worldwide. So that’s it, that’s the only reason he said,” the defense chief added.
“I believe that we should continue engaging with them and exercise [with them] so that we can develop interoperability, develop common doctrines, not only in fighting armed group but especially now, fighting the pandemic and other threats to our nation like calamities,” Lorenzana said in the interview.
On Tuesday evening, June 2, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced that the government on Monday, June 1, sent the US Embassy in Manila notice that upon Duterte’s instructions, it was suspending the termination of the defense pact.
The move extends the VFA by 6 months and renewable by another 6 months. Duterte’s decision to hold on to the pact was due to “political and other developments in the region,” the notice to the US embassy stated.
What went before
On February 11, Duterte ordered notice to be sent to the US embassy that he was terminating the VFA, setting off a 180-day countdown to its final repeal that would have been in August.
Although Duterte had long dangled the idea of cutting the agreement with the US, his move earlier this year was triggered by the US canceling the visa of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, the implementer of Duterte’s violent war on drugs.
The US Congress earlier passed legislation banning perpetrators of human rights abuses from entering the US. It mentioned the Philippine drug war and the political persecution of Senator Leila de Lima, who had opposed and investigated the campaign that killed thousands of untried suspects.
The VFA provides legal cover for the mass entry of US troops into Philippine territory with lax visa and passport requirements. It also sets rules on the entry and management of US assets in the Philippines, and the prosecution of US servicemen and women who violate laws while in the country.
Major activities under the VFA include the yearly Balikatan (Shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises and other joint drills between the two militaries. The pact also allows for the presence of a US military contingent in Mindanao to help out in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance against terrorism.
The VFA is seen as a key agreement that “gives flesh” to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US.
This year’s Balikatan exercises set for May were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Better with than without VFA
In Senate hearings on the VFA’s repeal earlier this year, Lorenzana and Locsin spoke in favor of keeping the agreement. It might have needed updating, they said, but the Philippines was better off with it than without.
AFP sources Rappler spoke to at the time said many of the military’s officers were wary of cutting the VFA, as the US military is a source of crucial training and support.
Military asset acquisitions from the US would have continued, but trainings in their use benefitted from the local presence of American troops, especially in building interoperability between the allied forces.
Besides this, US military presence on Philippine soil is seen as a deterrent against an expansionist China, which wields increasing presence and control in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines deals with China in its own way as the US continues patrolling the broader South China Sea, Lorenzana said in the CNN Philippines interview. Still, it makes more sense to draw allies near during times of crisis, and not push them away.
“In times of crises and global uncertainty, it is our belief that nations are only made stronger if we work together and focus our efforts on tackling the various challenges that confront us all,” Lorenzana said in his statement. – Rappler.com