Visiting Forces Agreement

Trump national security adviser visits Manila, bats for longer VFA

Pia Ranada
Trump national security adviser visits Manila, bats for longer VFA
'We got the Philippines' back when it comes to the South China Sea,' says National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien as he visits the Philippines

President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien asked Duterte Cabinet members to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between Manila and Washington for longer, as he promised the United States will continue to back the Philippines in rejecting China’s claim to the West Philippine Sea.

O’Brien batted for a longer suspension of the Duterte-ordered VFA abrogation during his meeting and lunch on Monday, November 23, with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III.

“We’re grateful for the initial 6 months. We think it would be better if it was a year a longer but we’ll have to wait and see. That’s ultimately a decision for the government of the Philippines,” said O’Brien in a brief interview with reporters on Monday, November 23, in Taguig City.

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“We’d obviously like to see that longer and that’s something I spoke with Secretary Locsin about is if we extend it a further period of time so we can have some negotiations to address the important concerns on both sides of that treaty and that agreement and not be up against an artificial deadline,” the Trump adviser also said.

The VFA, critical in preventing overt actions from China in the West Philippine Sea, is a military deal that allows ease of movement for American troops and defense assets in and out of the Philippines.

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Duterte ordered the termination of the VFA in January, angry over the cancellation of the US visa of his ally and former head of his anti-drugs campaign Senator Ronald dela Rosa.

But after 6 months, he ordered the termination suspended for half a year, making the VFA in effect for longer.

Come November, Duterte extended the suspension of the termination by another 6 months. This is supposed to be the last extension since the Department of Foreign Affairs note verbale to the US Embassy says that at the end of the second extension period,  “the tolling of the period in Note Verbale No 20-0463 dated 11 February 2020 shall resume.”

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Note Verbale No 20-0463 refers to the notice of VFA termination.

‘Got your back’

The Trump administration official promised the Philippines could count on America in pushing back against China’s claim over the South China Sea, parts of which belong to the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea.

“We got the Philippines’ back when it comes to the South China Sea,” 

O’Brien reiterated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s commitment in 2019 that the US will deploy troops to defend the Philippines if there is any armed attack on its territory or military forces.

“We don’t want to go back to an era where might makes right, the imperial era where one country, just because it’s bigger and stronger, can take the valuable property of another country,” O’Brien added.

As the Philippines, under Duterte, begins to allow exploration for oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea, O’Brien said the resources in the critical water body are reserved for Filipinos.

“The resources, the oil, the gas, the minerals, the fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, those belong to your children and your grandchildren. They belong to the people of the Philippines. It’s the patrimony of this great country,” said the National Security Adviser.

Fight vs terrorism

In his meeting with Locsin, O’Brien presented a US donation of $18 million worth of precision guided munitions or smart bombs to be used in the Philippine campaign against terrorists.

He said the grant was a “sign of confidence” in the Philippine military as it fights Muslim extremists intent on setting up an Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold in the southern region of Mindanao.

Still, O’Brien said he brought up the issue of human rights before Duterte Cabinet members.

“We always raise the issue of human rights and I raised the issue of human rights today. We always raise that even to our friends and we can talk candidly and frankly with our friends,” said the Trump adviser.

Despite his human rights concerns, which he did not elaborate on, O’Brien called the Philippines a “great democracy” with “great leadership.”

Messy US domestic politics

O’Brien’s visit to Southeast Asia comes as the US government is at the cusp of transitioning into the administration of Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in elections earlier this month.

The Trump adviser said his visit to Asian allies, including the Philippines, is proof that, regardless of administrations, concerns on China and the maritime dispute remain an important facet of US foreign policy.

“We’re here to let people in Asia know, especially our close friends like the Philippines know, America’s not leaving, we’ve got your back. We’re here and whatever happens in the domestic politics of the United States, this is a critical alliance for us,” said O’Brien.

Back in the US, O’Brien made headlines by saying it appeared Biden had won the elections, in stark contrast to Trump’s own false claims of victory.

On Monday, O’Brien was more careful with his words.

“On January 20th we’ll have a continuity government, we’ll have either a second Trump term or we’ll have a Biden-Harris administration,” he told Philippine media.

“But whatever happens, you know, American democracy is strong and vibrant and it think we set a great example around the world,” he continued. 

O’Brien held no meeting or phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who was in Davao City on Monday.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the last Trump Cabinet member to visit the Philippines, also did not pay Duterte a courtesy call during his November 2019 trip.

After meeting with Locsin and other Cabinet members on Monday, O’Brien visited the Manila American Cemetery to lay a wreath in honor of American and Filipino soldiers who died in World War II. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.