MANILA, Philippines – Contrary to an earlier statement from the presidential spokesperson, President Rodrigo Duterte has not yet ordered Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr to send the US notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Saturday afternoon, February 8.
On Friday night, February 7, Panelo told reporters in a message that Duterte “is instructing” Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to tell Locsin to send the notice of termination to the US government.
“This is fake news. Sec. Locsin has not been (sic) the order yet,” Lorenzana replied in a message to reporters when he was asked to comment on the matter.
Asked whether he meant that Locsin has not “seen” the order yet, and that no official order has been issued to Locsin or the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Lorenzana replied: “Yes, according to Sec. Medialdea! None. Nada. Zilch. Awan. Wala! Anggapo.”
Medialdea confirmed this to Rappler in a message.
Reacting to Lorenzana’s statement, Panelo denied “inconsistency” between his and his fellow Cabinet members’ statements.
“What SND (Secretary of National Defense Lorenzana) meant is ES (Executive Secretary Medialdea) has yet to receive the instruction. That is what [Medialdea] also told me last night, that he has not received the instruction yet from PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte),” Panelo said in a message to reporters on Saturday afternoon.
“There is no inconsistency. I was quoting [President Duterte] of what he told me. If he has not given the instruction yet to [Medialdea] it does not mean the info I shared to media is untrue. It only means [Medialdea] has not yet gotten the directive from [President Duterte].”
At a Senate hearing on the VFA on Thursday, February 6, Lorenzana and Locsin both warned of far-reaching consequences should the Philippines abrogate the military pact with the US.
Ratified in 1999, the VFA provides a legal framework for the presence of US military troops in the Philippines. It allows for advisory and surveillance cooperation between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the US military, as well as regular joint exercises and trainings, and humanitarian aid operations in the wake of disasters.
Although they did not have a combat role, a small number of US troops gave vital surveillance assistance to Philippine forces that led to the retaking of Marawi City in October 2017 after a 5-month siege by the Maute terror group, according to both US and Philippine officials. (READ: With VFA uncertain, U.S. envoy hails military alliance with PH at WW2 event]
The VFA has served as a deterrent to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, helped the AFP modernize, and boosted economic ties with the US and its allies, Locsin told the Senate panel on Thursday.
Over Bato’s visa woes
On January 23, Duterte announced he would scrap the VFA if the US did not within a month restore Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s visa. Dela Rosa earlier said that his US visa had been cancelled.
Although the US has not spoken about Dela Rosa’s visa, its Senate earlier resolved to apply the Global Magnitsky Act to Philippine officials involved in Duterte’s violent “war on drugs,” which according to government figures has killed at least 6,000 people. Right groups estimate the death toll to be more than 20,000.
This means Dela Rosa, Duterte’s first police chief who operated the “war on drugs,” may be the subject of US sanctions including the revocation of his visa.
Duterte has been criticized for putting the VFA on the line over a political ally’s visa woes. Locsin and Lorezana both told the Senate panel on Thursday that Duterte did not consult them before ordering the agreement scrapped.
Locsin recommended a review – not the termination – of the VFA, which gives flesh to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Phillippines and the US.
Nevertheless, the foreign secretary earlier said he had the notice to terminate the VFA already prepared in Washington, and he would send it to the US government only upon the direct order of Duterte himself. A termination will take place 180 days after the US receives the written notice.
On Friday, Panelo said Duterte was scheduled to speak with US President Donald Trump “soon,” but he did not say what the two leaders would talk about. – with a report from Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler.com
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.