MANILA, Philippines – If only to have talks on the Philippines' bilateral ties with the United States, former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario urged President Rodrigo Duterte to accept US President Donald Trump's invitation for a summit.
Del Rosario gave the recommendation following Duterte's threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington if the US fails to "correct" Philippine Senator Ronald dela Rosa's canceled visa.
"Should our President wish to improve the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) and the VFA, he may wish to accept the invitation to meet President Trump. This would present an excellent opportunity for our President to place on the table his full expectations pertaining to our bilateral relations," Del Rosario said in a statement on Sunday, January 26.
Duterte earlier rejected Trump's invite for him and other Southeast Asian leaders to attend a special summit in Las Vegas in March. In declining the invite, the Philippine President harked back to his tumultuous relationship with former US president Barack Obama, who was critical of Duterte's war on drugs.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr also announced on Friday, January 24, that he would "start the process" of terminating the VFA, a day after Duterte's threat.
'Imperfect,' but 'essential'
Del Rosario said that while the VFA is "imperfect," it is "essential" for the two countries' decades-old defense alliance.
"While the VFA is admittedly an imperfect agreement, [junking] it would interrupt the benefits of the MDT with regards to the joint training and exercises, the pursuit of modernization, achieving interoperability, and providing assistance during natural calamities," he said.
The 69-year-old MDT, which covers the South China Sea, is seen as a deterrent to China's aggressive tactics against its fellow maritime claimants.
Del Rosario warned that terminating the VFA would actualize the Philippines' pivot to China, "against the strong and vehement objections of our people."
He also recalled how the VFA made quick US aid possible when the Philippines was hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013.
"Other countries wanted to immediately respond but were constrained by the lack of legal arrangements for their troops to enter the Philippines. At its peak, the US military efforts included more than 13,000 military personnel, 66 aircraft, and 12 naval vessels. The US delivered more than 2,500 tons of relief supplies and evacuated over 21,000 people," he said.
Palace says no
In response, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Duterte does not need Del Rosario's advice.
"I suggest he stays retired. The President knows what he is doing, he does not need advice...especially from the one who lost the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese government," Panelo said.
Del Rosario, a staunch defender of the West Philippine Sea, was foreign secretary when the Philippines took China to court – and won. The Duterte administration has since downplayed the victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in exchange for loans and grants from Beijing.
The VFA, ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999, outlines guidelines for the conduct of American troops visiting the Philippines and is the foundation for military exercises between the Philippines and the US.
The Aquino-time Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which provided for increased US military presence in the Philippines, operationalized the VFA. – Rappler.com