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No more military exercises with U.S. when VFA lapses – Lorenzana

MANILA, Phillippines – After days of silence, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday, February 13, finally made a public statement on the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, saying Philippine and American forces will cease to have joint exercises after the repeal takes effect in 180 days, or 6 months.

“With the formal serving of the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, this year’s planned military exercises with the Americans shall proceed as scheduled within the 180 days that the VFA remains in force. However, our American counterparts may opt to discontinue the scheduled exercises before the 180 days are up.” Lorenzana said.

“Once the termination is final, we will cease to have exercises with them,” he added.

The Philippine and US militaries hold an average of 300 joint activities every year, many of them exercises and trainings meant to increase interoperability, or the familiarity that enables both sides to work seamlessly together.

Among those activities are the annual Balikatan exercises, set for May this year, which involves all of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) service branches: the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy, which includes the Marines.

Balikatan

This year’s Balikatan exercises fall within the 6-month interim after President Rodrigo Duterte officially ordered the repeal of the VFA on Tuesday, February 11. The VFA states that its termination takes effect after 180 days of the issuance of a notice from either party.

Besides the Balikatan, major joint activities between the AFP and the US military include the Kamandag exercises of their marine corps, the MTA Sama-Sama involving their navies, the Salaknib exercises of the two armies, and the Bilateral Air Contingent Exercise between their air forces.

AFP generals have credited these trainings with the advancement of Filipino troops’ warfighting capabilities, and exposure to advanced technologies and assets. The US Armed Forces is among the most formidable militaries in the world.

On Monday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper told reporters that joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US would “be reduced or [would] disappear” if the VFA were to end.

The VFA allows for the easy entry of US troops into the Philippines by waiving regular immigration requirements such as passports and visas for US servicemen and women on official business. It also sets rules on the entry and movement of US assets, and jurisdiction and trial proceedings for US military members accused of crimes committed while in the Philippines.

Ending the VFA would entail a major drawdown of US military troops in the Philippines. It may also affect the implementation of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries, and their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement on the placement of military troops and assets in certain Philippine bases.

Against his Cabinet’s advice

Duterte brought up his intent to cut the VFA on January 23, a day after his political ally, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, said that his US visa had been canceled. Duterte then gave the US a month’s ultimatum to restore his former police chief’s visa.

Dela Rosa’s visa appeared to have been canceled as a sanction for his having led Duterte’s violent “war on drugs” that has killed thousands of people who have not been formally accused of any crime, or as mere “collateral damage” in police operations. The US Senate earlier resolved to apply the Global Magnitsky Act to operators of Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

Members of Duterte’s Cabinet have advised against terminating the VFA, saying it would be against the Philippines’ own interests. Among the country’s most pressing security threats are terrorists sneaking in through its porous southern border, and an expansionist China laying claim to most of the West Philippine Sea, harassing Filipino fishermen and militarizing reclaimed outposts in Philippine waters.

US troops stationed on a rotational basis in the Philippines have provided intelligence and surveillance assistance in counterterrorism efforts of the AFP. Analysts said US naval patrols and even joint military exercises have been a deterrent against possible Chinese aggression.

But Duterte “did not listen to his Cabinet,” a military general, declining to be named, told reporters on Tuesday after the President ordered the notice of termination served on the US embassy in Manila.

The Senate and other government officials had also urged Duterte to hold off the termination at least until after a thorough review of the agreement and the ramifications of its termination could be done.

Trump ‘fine’ with cutting VFA

Minutes after news of the VFA’s termination broke, a tweet by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr hinted at negotiations during the 180-day interim period. On Wednesday, however, US President Donald Trump said he was “fine” with the VFA’s repeal, adding it would save the US “a lot of money.”

During a Senate hearing on the VFA last week, Lorenzana, a military general before joining the civilian government, had pointed out the US’ contributions to the Philippine defense establishment amounting to about $1.3 billion since 1998, the year the agreement was signed.

Lorenzana was the Philippines' military attaché to the US, posted at the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC from 2002 to 2004. He then became the presidential representative for veterans affairs, still in Washington, from 2004 to June 2016, when he came home to become Duterte's defense secretary.

Asked whether the Philippines needed the VFA, the defense chief told senators that the country “did not need the VFA indefinitely.”

On Saturday, February 1, Lorenzana denied an earlier report from the presidential spokesperson that Duterte had already ordered the official termination of the pact. Salvador Panelo, the President’s spokesman, insisted on his earlier pronouncement. Lorenzana then told reporters he would leave all statements on the VFA to the President and his spokesman.

Reporters had been pressing Lorenzana for comment ever since Duterte’s order came out at midday on Tuesday, to no avail. His Thursday statement on the would-be end of military exercises with the US was his first pronouncement on the VFA’s termination. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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