The Philippines is in a precarious position in geopolitics. We abrogated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, cutting military ties with one of our longest and most reliable allies, our former colonizers whose Western culture we most identify ourselves with, and we most aspire and emulate to be. While a new VFA with the US with more acceptable terms is not out of the picture, we do not expect coming back together with the US anytime soon, at least for the next two years, unless another “Duterte” wins in the 2022 elections.
The number one country that everyone’s expecting the Philippines to have a VFA with is, of course, China. However, as we all know, China is suffering from the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, now known as Covid-19. We get figures from China on the number of deaths and people infected with Covid-19, but we have no way of actually verifying this. The extent of damage and spread of Covid-19 in China is really unknown. There are a number of conspiracy theories, from it being a biological weapon testing gone wrong and supposed radar images of burning at the outskirts of Wuhan. This puts the administration of President Xi Jinping on its toughest test ever.
Thus, terminating the VFA comes at the possibly worst possible time, when the country we have most been in bed since 2016 is facing a contagious epidemic that may have the capability of wiping out an entire race. A VFA with China may end up not happening at all because it has much bigger problems at present, and this opens up opportunities to have VFA with other countries. The new AFP Chief of Staff, in his confirmation hearing the other day, said that we can have VFA with Japan, Australia and other countries in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
The US, at first, seemed concerned, but US President Donald Trump just recently commented that he is fine with the Philippines ending the VFA as this would save them a lot of money. President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet were in disarray over this issue last weekend, but all things became final when the notice of VFA termination was sent out last Tuesday. Where does this put us?
Anent Covid-19, we have no one else to rely on but ourselves. With the travel bans and the economic shift away from China, the Philippines has to find a way to recoup the country’s potential losses. In a joint meeting of the Committees on Economic Affairs and Tourism held last Wednesday, Economic Affairs chairperson Sharon Garin (AAMBIS-OWA) expressed confidence that the Philippine tourism industry will soon recover from the Covid-19.
Upon the directive of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Garin and Tourism chairperson Sol Aragones (3rd District, Laguna) met with representatives from various agencies, such as the National Economic and Development Authority, Departments of Tourism, Health, Finance and Trade and Industry, and Bureau of Immigration to assess the effect of the Covid-19 on tourism and the whole economy and discuss plans to cushion its impact.
“We urge tourism stakeholders from the private sector to continue working with us so as to prevent the displacement of workers affected and the disruption of growth in the tourism industry,” Cayetano said. The tourism industry accounted for 5.4 million jobs in the country in 2018, which was 1.8 percent higher compared to the 5.3 million jobs in 2017.
Tourism vice chairman Edgar Chatto (1st District, Bohol) also manifested confidence in the tourism industry, which contributes 10 percent to the global work force and global production.
“We have been very resilient in the tourism sector even if we are threatened by disasters or threats like this. The tendency of the industry is really to rebound. It grows back. After this crisis, we will be able to bounce back,” Chatto said.
Aragones, on the other hand, recognized the government’s efforts to prepare the country against the prejudicial effects of Covid-19 and to ensure the safety of the people.
“But while we hope this outbreak will be contained and controlled at the soonest time, we should also be adequately preparing for any eventuality. We, in the House, hope to work hand-in-hand with the Executive and other sectors to find ways to cushion the effects of this outbreak,” she said.
Meanwhile, DoT Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat reassured the general public that efforts are being undertaken by the department to soften the impact. She added that meetings and consultations with tourism stakeholders from the private sector are being conducted and plans are being put into place.
As for the VFA, we have to find new sparring partners quickly. Joint military exercises have proven useful for the Philippines in quelling internal strife in the past, but this should not be more of a problem with the emergence of BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao). External forces are not so much an issue now since we are in good terms with China, the past administration’s most fervent adversary. But in looking for military partners, let’s look for more economic partners, as well. It appears that this Covid-19 mess is far from over.
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