Philippines, US start talks on VFA fate

The Philippines and the United States headed back to the negotiating table to discuss the future of its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) on Thursday, February 11, exactly a year after the Duterte government first announced it was unilaterally terminating the decades-long military pact. 

“It starts today,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr tweeted

Philippine officials earlier said discussions were scheduled to take place within February when Manila and Washington hold annual high-level talks on relations between the two countries. 

Talks on the VFA’s fate come days after Locsin and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana spoke with their counterparts in the Biden administration, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III. In separate summaries of both conversations, the US said that both Blinken and Austin discussed with Philippine officials the importance of the two countries' alliance to the region, and the US' commitment to ties with its oldest ally in Asia. 

A highlight of the discussion between Blinken and Locsin saw the Biden administration clear up any lingering concern on its commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo said would cover the South China Sea. The scope of the MDT, which sees both countries commit to defending one another in case of an attack, had long been a point of concern for officials in Manila as China continued to insist on its expansive claims in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. 

The State Department said Blinken underscored the importance of the MDT for the security of both countries and pointed out in his conversation its "clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea."

According to an account of Austin's call with Lorenzana, the two defense officials discussed the importance of the MDT and VFA to both countries, as well as "regional security challenges, to include the South China Sea, counterterrorism, and maritime security."

Both defense secretaries discussed the need to improve the capability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines – which remained one of the weakest in Asia – and had also "affirmed the importance of upholding international rules and norms, to include the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling," the US Department of Defense said. 

Why this matters

With the first conversation between top Philippine and US officials touching on key points of the two countries' defense alliance, both sides are well aware a viable VFA or status of forces agreement is necessary for the MDT and other defense deals like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement to become operational. 

The VFA had been in limbo for a year after President Rodrigo Duterte decided to terminate the deal over the US' decision to revoke the visa of his ally and first police chief, Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa. 

The decision last February 11, 2020, triggered a 180-day countdown until the deal would be officially terminated, but this was put on pause after Duterte decided to suspend the VFA abrogation – first in June, and a second time in November, after Biden's electoral win. Diplomats and analysts had pointed to VFA negotiations as one of the foremost opportunities for Joe Biden in the region. 

On Thursday, Locsin said the Department of Foreign Affairs "will give no media interviews nor issue any press statement" on the discussion, citing national security interests.

Despite this, Locsin earlier said that officials would "iron out whatever differences we have and come to an agreement" through discussions during the countries' Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. 

Locsin told ABS-CBN last June 2020 that the discussion would include the deployment of counterterrorism forces in Mindanao, and "mainly jurisdictional" issues, in the case of offenses by American military in the Philippines. 

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

Both the Philippines and US have until August 2021 to finalize a new deal. – 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.

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