MANILA, Philippines – If the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US is scrapped, first to go would be joint operations between the two countries’ militaries, a high-ranking US official said in a teleconference with reporters on Monday, February 10.
The VFA provides a basis for the presence of US military troops in the Philippines that enables some 300 yearly joint activities with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), mostly exercises and trainings to build interoperability between the two forces. Without the agreement, these joint operations would be “put at risk,” said US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper.
“All the engagements, all the freedom of navigation operations, all the exercises, all the joint training, having US military personnel in port, on the ground, on the flight line, does require that we have a mechanism that allows that, and that’s why the VFA is so important,” Cooper said when asked what he thought would be the effect of terminating the agreement.
“I imagine if one was sitting in Manila, that regardless if they’re in ministerial capacity or if they’re actually in an operational service capacity, they do not want to see any of these engagements or exercises either be reduced or disappear.”
The VFA is also necessary in implementing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that “will beget further procurements and interoperability between the US-Philippine alliance,” Cooper added.
The EDCA, signed in 2014, allows US troops to maintain a rotational presence in certain Philippine military bases, and to preposition assets and build facilities in them. It is seen to help boost the Philippines’ defense capability and contribute to modernizing the AFP.
Asked whether terminating the VFA would affect the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, Cooper said the “immediate” impact would be on joint military operations. The EDCA “still is in place,” as well as plans for “significant procurements” by the Philippines of military assets from US suppliers.
‘I don’t want to’
On January 23, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would terminate the VFA if the US did not within a month restore the visa of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.
It appears Dela Rosa’s visa was canceled as part of sanctions based on the US Senate’s application of the Global Magnitsky Act to operators of Duterte’s violent “war on drugs.” Dela Rosa, as Duterte’s first police chief, had launched and carried out “Oplan Tokhang,” the campaign that has killed at least 6,000 people by government estimates, or more than 20,000 according to rights advocates.
Faced with opposition and criticism for putting the VFA on the line over a political ally’s visa troubles, Duterte reiterated the order several times including on Monday night, February 10. He said US President Donald Trump and some “others” were trying to save the VFA, but he replied, “I don’t want to.”
Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo claimed the order to scrap the VFA was a “calculated” and “premeditated” move.
On Friday, February 7, Panelo told reporters that Duterte had issued an official order to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr to send notice to the US of the VFA’s termination. On Saturday, February 8, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea told reporters that no such order had yet been issued.
Following a hearing on the VFA on February 6, the Senate on Monday urged Duterte to reconsider his order, arguing that the Philippines does derive benefits from the agreement, and cutting it could dampen ties with the US, a crucial ally.
What the senators suggested was to review the VFA, as Locsin recommended.
Some senators pointed out that terminating the VFA would require the Senate’s concurrence, as much as entering into it in 1999 required ratification by the Senate.
If the government does issue a notice to terminate the VFA, it would remain in effect for another 180 days before it lapses.
Cooper said the annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue between the Philippines and the US has initially been set for March, and he expects the VFA to be tackled in the meetings then.
Communication channels between the two militaries “remain very open,” and talks on future military procurements continue, he added.
“There’s an ongoing communication, and because of outstanding shared interests when it comes to freedom of navigation, freedom of movement, joint security interests, future procurements – this is part of the broader dialogue as to why there remains value in the VFA,” Cooper told reporters. – 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.