Philippines-US relations

VFA ‘improved,’ now up for Duterte’s decision, says PH envoy to US

Sofia Tomacruz

JOINT EXERCISES. Flag bearers during the opening ceremonies of the Philippines and US’ annual Balikatan exercises in 2016.

Raplper file photo

'We’re very confident that it will pull through,' says Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez

Over a year since the Philippines sent notice it was terminating its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez said concluded negotiations have “improved” the key deal between the two countries. 

“A lot of time has been spent by both countries to discuss some of the things that they wanted to improve in that agreement…. We’re very confident that it will pull through,” Romualdez said in a joint press briefing held with the US embassy in Manila on Friday, June 4. 

The deal, which provides the legal framework for the presence of US troops in the Philippines for war games and joint activities, had been in limbo for a year after President Rodrigo Duterte decided to terminate the deal on February 11, 2020. 

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Duterte had cut the deal over US’ lawmakers criticism of his controversial drug war and the US’ decision to revoke the visa of his ally and first police chief, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. He later suspend the VFA abrogation – first in June 2020, and a second time in November, after Bidens electoral win, to make way for further negotiations.

Romualdez said the deal is now up for Duterte’s decision. 

“It’s now in the office of the President and I expect it to come out any time now and we’re very hopeful that the VFA will continue because its an important piece of agreement that again, is part of a bigger picture of our relationship and the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Romualdez said. 

Romualdez did not disclose details on the provisions where changes had been made. In response to the issue, US embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law said “very productive, very good conversations” were held between both governments over a series of weeks after first meeting to discuss the agreement in February 2021. 

“There have been some very specific proposals related to how we can clarify and strengthen the implementation of the VFA,” Law said, adding that Washington now await the Philippine government’s decision.

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Key deal

Both countries have long recognized the VFA was necessary for the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty to become operational. Several officials including State Secretary Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary  Lloyd Austin III earlier reassured the Philippines that the MDT would cover the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, where China continued to aggressively assert its claims. 

“The VFA is very important for the MDT to be operational and give it a little more teeth actually. We’ve had it for a number of years and we’re very hopeful, hopefully confident that the President will approve the continuance of the VFA,” Romualdez said. 

In a separate briefing on Friday, Pacific Air Forces Commander General Kenneth Wilsbach spoke to the relevance of the VFA, saying “If there’s not one (agreement), that restricts what I can do in the Philippines.” 

Malacañang recently said Duterte had yet to make a decision on the VFA but that he would seek the public’s opinion on the deal and consider what was “best” for the country.  If Duterte decides to again terminate the deal, the agreement will end in a year that marks the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the US. 

In the months since the VFA’s termination had been put on hold, Duterte had demanded payment from Washington for the continuation of the deal and had even dangled its fate over the issue of COVID-19 vaccines from the US. 

Romualdez earlier told Reuters the Philippines expects to get $40 million in US foreign military financing in its next fiscal year. The Philippines has also been the largest recipient of US military aid in the Indo-Pacific region, having received P33 billion ($690.45 million) worth of assistance since 2015. 

The Philippines has likewise been listed among countries that will receive the first batch of 25 million doses of vaccines from the US by the end of June. 

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Diplomats and defense officials in both countries have underscored the importance of preserving the VFA, with the US earlier calling its termination a “step in the wrong direction,” and the Philippines warning of far-reaching consequences and risks if the deal is terminated. 

Former Philippine ambassador to Washington DC Raul Rabe earlier told Rappler that keeping the VFA would demonstrate the Philippines’ commitment to its alliance with the US, which had been tested under the Duterte administration.

“If we terminate the VFA, we will be at the mercy of China…. This is a military alliance and it is only as strong as the commitment of two parties,” he said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.