With the Duterte government formally sending notice to the United States terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), alarm bells sounded all around.
After the US received and formally acknowledged the notice, it means the VFA is terminated 180 days or six months from now. In the meantime, the VFA remains in force until the end of that six months.
It is this “meantime of six months,” which should be highly interesting, enough for surprises including the very possibility the VFA might not even be scrapped.
Six months indeed is a long enough time for official and unofficial maneuverings that will either make the VFA finally dead or not. This, even if some alarmed quarters are fearing its abrogation is fatal, a done deal.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. himself hinted on such possibilities on Tuesday when he suggested there could be room for a vigorous review of the VFA to take place even after notice was given.
A newspaper reported that when a reporter commented the VFA termination would trigger “furious negotiations” Locsin tweeted a response: “You’re the only one who got that.”
Locsin’s cryptic remark is puzzling enough. Except for the fact there is a forthcoming official forum where both the Philippines and the United States will formally tackle the full range of issues governing relations between the two countries. That official forum hints why Locsin is looking forward to “furious negotiations.”
When then will this “furious negotiations” take place? It should be as early as next month.
Prior to Tuesday’s formal notice, a high-ranking US official on Monday in a teleconference with reporters said the annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) between the Philippines and the US is set for March.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper told reporters he expects the VFA to be tackled in the coming BSD meetings.
It is not clear where this year’s BSD meetings, the ninth such formal dialogue, will be held. The BSD take place yearly and are done to tackle political, security and economic cooperation between the two countries.
On Tuesday also, the US Embassy issued a brief tantalizing statement on the termination notice: “This is a serious step with significant implications for the US-Philippine alliance. We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests.”
Reacting to the statement, the Palace said, “The President will not entertain any initiative coming from the US government to salvage the VFA, neither will he accept any official invitation to visit the United States.”
The embassy statement can be read many ways with the Palace’s reaction as but one interpretation. Though the Palace’s stance seems firm and tough, it still did sound as if the Executive is armoring itself against negotiating gambits — the word “initiative” and a Duterte US trip being dead giveaways to such an interpretation.
At any rate, while dialogues and even possibly intense negotiations may or may not happen in the coming BSD talks, immediate consequences and major issues involved in the termination of the VFA are already being addressed.
Should the VFA in fact be terminated even after the BSD meetings, Cooper told reporters termination would affect hundreds of military “engagements and exercises” between the Philippine and American militaries. Clearly, the impact is on the country’s military establishment.
“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.
As a backgrounder, the VFA is a security pact between the Philippines and the United States. It contains guidelines and conditions for US military and civilian personnel temporarily sent to the Philippines. The VFA was crafted following the Philippine Senate’s rejection of US bases in 1991.
The VFA affirms the two countries’ obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed in 1951. The MDT is a commitment of the two countries to defend each other in the event of an armed attack.
Provisions of the VFA are also threshed out in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an executive agreement signed in April 2014.
EDCA provides for increased rotational military presence of US troops, planes and ships in the country and gives them wider access to military bases in the country. EDCA is also seen as helping boost the country’s defense capabilities and contributes to modernizing the country’s military.
Interestingly, Cooper says EDCA “still is in place” with communication channels between the two militaries “remain(ing) very open” and current talks on future military procurements by the AFP still continuing.
As it is, however, the Department of Justice says it is still studying the effects of the VFA’s termination on EDCA, as well as on the MDT. This, even as one policy expert says that any executive agreement based on the VFA will have “no leg to stand on” if the VFA is scrapped.
On the issue whether terminating the VFA will affect the 1951 MDT, Cooper did not categorically address it.
But Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate Defense Committee, has a grim view on the future of the MDT. “What is certain is that the 1951 Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty will now be reduced to a mere paper treaty as far as the US is concerned,” Lacson says.
Lacson’s view on the MDT might be dire but his support for the VFA’s benefits on the country’s military and security arrangements echoes views held by other senators, policy analysts, some members of Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet and senior military officers.
In response to all these concerns, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo optimistically quipped, “As the President said, it’s about time we rely on our own resources.”
How such official optimism will stand up or look like after all the “furious negotiations” are done or not we should see by August. If anything, hold your horses momentarily as the VFA conundrum still isn’t a dead deal yet.