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VFA countdown starts

Kristina Maralit

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There will be no more joint exercises between militaries of the Philippines and the United States once the six-month transition period of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) ends.

This was the announcement made Thursday by Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will “cease to have exercises” with its American counterpart “once the termination is final.”

“With the formal serving of the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, this year’s planned military exercises with the Americans shall proceed as scheduled within the 180 days that the VFA remains in force,” Lorenzana said in a statement.

“However, our American counterparts may opt to discontinue the scheduled exercises before the 180 days are up,” he added.

More than 300 joint military exercises are held by the Philippines and the US, whose armed forces is among the strongest and most formidable in the globe, every year, which include the Balikatan exercises participated in by all of the AFP’s major branches.

The said exercise is slated for May, well within the 180-day period.

Other major military activities between the two countries are the “Kamandag” exercises involving the Marines, MTA Sama-Sama of the Navy, Salaknib of the Army, and the Bilateral Air Contingent Exercise between their air forces.

While these military exercises are now doomed, the Philippines has also entered into other agreements with the US in support of VFA, in establishing peace and Order in the Region. At the height of this, the Palace has yet to comment on how the scrapping of VFA will affect (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) EDCA, another agreement that supplements the established pacts between the militaries of the two countries.

Under EDCA, the agreement allows for US forces and contractors to operate out of “agreed locations,” which are defined as “facilities and areas” that are provided by the Government of the Philippines through the AFP and US forces contractors.

EDCA was signed sometime in 2016 and has a validity of 10 years. Since only VFA was scrapped, EDCA remains to be in effect as there was no definitive order from the President to terminate it as well.

Respect for Phl

Malacañang Thursday said that by terminating the VFA, the Philippines gained the respect of the United States and showed them that we can stand on our own.

Chief presidential Legal Counsel and spokesman Salvador Panelo made the remark when asked during a press briefing at the Palace what government has achieved after it filed the notice of termination of the VFA.

“Yes, of course,” Panelo said.

“How? By terminating it, we showed them that we do not need them,” he added.

With regard to comments made by US President Donald Trump that he never really minded if the Philippine government terminated the VFA considering that the US can save a lot of money, Panelo said it remains to be seen if he is really serious about it.

Trump was quoted as saying: “Well, I — I never minded that very much, to be honest. We helped the Philippines very much. We helped them defeat ISIS. I get along — actually, I have a very good relationship there. But I — I really don’t mind. If they would like to do that, that’s fine. We’ll save a lot of money. You know, my views are different than other people. I view it as, “Thank you very much. We save a lot of money.”

“Now the statements of Mr. Trump, we do not know exactly whether he was very serious of that. You must remember that the VFA and other treaties are there precisely because of the global strategic defensive positioning of the United States. You must remember that the perceived enemies of the US are very near this country, hence they need us.” Panelo said.

VFA with Asian neighbors?

Once the VFA is officially terminated, concerns have been raised that the Philippine military’s warfighting capabilities and exposure to advanced technologies and assets will be dealt a huge blow.

The decades-long Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between both countries as well as the EDCA allowing the placement of US military troops and assets in certain Philippine bases may also be in peril.

This was allayed by AFP Chief of Staff, Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., who said the Philippine military may forge similar agreements with neighboring countries to fill the void to be left by the USA.
“Part of filling the gap is we will increase our bilateral exercises, agreement with other countries not only United Sates, the only SOVFA (Status of Visiting Forces Agreement) we have is Australia, so with the help of the Congress and the Senate we will push for the approval of (agreements with) the other countries like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and other allied countries,” Santos said during his confirmation hearing at the Senate last Wednesday.

Japan and Indonesia, in particular, are countries the AFP is mulling signing military agreements similar to the VFA or SOVFA, added Santos.

Interestingly, the idea of forging a pact with China, a country with which the Philippines has been embroiled in a heated territorial dispute at the West Philippine (South China) Sea has also been brought up.

The Chinese has been aggressively putting up military installations in artificial islands it had built in the disputed waterway.

Santos likewise disclosed that there are 318 joint PH-US military exercises and other activities spread throughout the year. Half of them, however, may no longer push through once the VFA between both countries is formally dissolved after six months.

“It has already been decided. What the AFP will do is to prepare for not having the VFA,” noted the military chief.

with Alvin Murcia @tribunephl_alvi
and Francis Wakefield

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