The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday raised “common defense among regional allies” as the main reason for President Rodrigo Duterte’s suspension of his earlier withdrawal from the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.
The Chief Executive announced the “postponement” of his earlier declaration to terminate the VFA on Tuesday night, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. claiming that it was made for safety and peace amid the regional and world tension, and the efforts against the continuing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Duterte’s decision to suspend the termination of the VFA was influenced by the pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions,” Locsin stated.
“In the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in the time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quickened-mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world,” he said.
In February, Duterte ended the VFA through a letter after the US government canceled Senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa’s visa over his alleged role in a supposedly bloody anti-drug campaign of the Philippine government.
De la Rosa used to be President Duterte’s chief of the Philippine National Police until his retirement in the middle of 2018. He briefly served as Director of the Bureau of Corrections before he joined and won the senatorial race in 2019.
The US government canceled his visa in January, prompting the President to end the long-standing defense agreement with the US on Valentine’s Day this year.
On Monday night, Locsin announced that Mr. Duterte instructed to revoke the action with still a couple of months left before the termination was scheduled to take effect. It was set to expire in August.
Locsin explained that the President’s decision was necessary for security.
“A man who does not change his mind cannot change anything,” he said, citing his slogan — “Change is coming” — when he made his victorious presidential run in 2016.
He emphasized that the action should not cause any alarm among neighboring Asian countries as the move only aims to strengthen military ties with the US.
“We continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense toward enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Locsin said.
The VFA, forged in 1999 to give context to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), was one of the first agreements made between Washington and Manila, putting emphasis on both military and humanitarian assistance.
With the agreement in place, the US has provided the Philippines with assistance over the years, including nearly $1 billion (P50.73 billion) in military equipment, training, aid and funding 2016 to 2019.
The VFA allowed US servicemen and women to enter country without passports or visas. But they needed their full military credentials authenticated by the US authority coordinating their activity in the Philippines. Entry of naval ship crews and marine battalions for exercises was also allowed.
Cases of rape and murder of Filipinos had been committed by US servicemen in the past. Two of them were prosecuted here, although the erring servicemen have been deported to the US.
Yet, lawmakers welcomed Mr. Duterte’s pronouncement and vouched for its advantageous impact on the Philippine economy and military security.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the VFA is needed in protecting the Philippine territories while the country is increasing its military capability.
“This sudden policy change is a welcome development. The unhampered implementation of the VFA will serve the interest of our country, particularly with regard to the preservation of our rights over parts of the West Philippine Sea,” Drilon said.
The minority chief also urged the government to come up with a “stable foreign policy” that promotes the interest of the Philippines.
Senator Sonny Angara also said that the President’s decision can help the country overcome the COVID-19 pandemic as more countries could lend a hand to the Philippines.
“It’s safer, more cautious and a considered decision in this time of COVID-19 when it helps to be friends with all nations and given some of the recent developments,” he said.
De la Rosa also branded the President’s act as a “welcome development.”
“Foreign policies can be flexible at times depending on the realities in the bilateral, regional, or global arena of foreign relations,” he told Daily Tribune.
Senator Richard Gordon, meanwhile, explained that in the light of the pandemic, breaking ties will not help the country’s foreign relations.
“The year already started out tempestuously — with intensified differences having sprung up in erstwhile relatively smooth international and bilateral relationships, terrorism remaining a serious problem. And now with this pandemic that we are facing, it is not a time for breaking up relations but a time for cooperation, especially longstanding friendships. We have to continue to develop our ties with the United States. We have had a long history, bumpy as it is,” he said.
The US Embassy in Manila said it welcomes the Philippine government’s decision.
“Our long-standing alliance has benefitted both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” it said.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez agreed that the President’s decision was caused by the current political and pandemic crises.
“Obviously, the situation as far as the pandemic is a major concern, and the diversity of course disagreements,” he said. “Our governments have seen that it would be prudent for us to simply suspend the (VFA) termination.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also backed the President’s decision and vowed to consult with the Office of the Presidential Commission on Visiting Forces on “issues that need to be addressed.”
He claimed ready to “continue working closely” with their American counterparts to find solutions to common global concerns such as the pandemic.
“In times of crises and global uncertainty, it is our belief that nations are only made stronger if we work together and focus our efforts on tackling the various challenges that confront us all,” the Defense chief stated.
“We need the cooperation from the countries, we need to cooperate with other countries to fight the pandemic and I think the president thought that it’s not timely to end the VFA at this time,” he noted.
With the suspension of the VFA abrogation, Lorenzana said he foresees increased US assistance to the country’s ongoing fight against COVID-19.
“They already gave us some assistance very recently especially in providing equipment in our quarantine facilities,” stated the DND Secretary.
The President’s directive extends the defense pact by another six months — renewable by another six months.
Lorenza said previously scheduled military exercises between Filipino and American troops will now push through.
More than 300 joint military exercises have been held between the Philippines and the US, including the Balikatan exercises participated in by all of the AFP’s major branches.
“We learned a lot from them and they learned enough from us. They are our allies through the MDT and I believe that should continue,” he stressed.
“They also help us in our terrorism fight against the Abu Sayyaf in the South. There are lots of benefits that we get from this agreement,” he added.
with KRISTINA MARALIT
FRANCIS T. WAKEFIELD
AND HANANEEL BORDEY