BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and ASHZEL HACHERO
THE Duterte government yesterday officially terminated the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman said President Duterte on Monday night directed Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to tell Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to sign and send the notice of termination to the US government.
Locsin said the US Embassy in Manila has already received the notice.
“The Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of the United States has received the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement. As a matter of diplomatic courtesy, there will be no further factual announcements following this self-explanatory development,” Locsin said.
Panelo and Locsin said the termination will become effective 180 days from receipt of the notice by the US government.
Panelo said there is no need for the US to respond to the Philippines’ letter of termination to make it effective.
The termination of the 21-year-old VFA came following the decision of the US government to cancel the visa issued to administration ally Sen. Ronald dela Rosa over the Duterte administration’s bloody and violent war on illegal drugs.
Malacañang has repeatedly said the visa cancellation was the last straw and ticked off a series of actions of US officials which it claimed were disrespectful of the Philippines, its sovereignty and its officials.
Among these actions were the demand for the release of opposition Sen. Leila de Lima and the barring of entry to the US of some Philippine officials perceived to be involved in the case of the detained De Lima.
The US embassy in Manila called the Philippine government’s move “a serious step with significant implications”.
“We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests,” it said in a statement.
The defense pact sets out rules for US soldiers to operate in the Philippines and is one of three governing agreements that has bound what Washington has called an “ironclad” relationship.
END OF JOINT MILITARY EXERCISES
US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clark Cooper said the termination of the agreement means an end to joint military operation and training exercises between Washington and Manila.
“All the engagements, all the freedom of navigation operations, all the exercises and joint trainings, having US military personnel in port, on the ground and on the flight line does require that we have a mechanism that allows that, and that is why the Visiting Forces Agreement is important,” Cooper said in a telephone interview with reporters from around the region while in Singapore on a visit.
“Without a VFA it puts at risk thing like these engagements, like these exercises. So again, from an interagency standpoint at home in the US and from the inter-ministerial standpoint in Manila, there’s a recognized, broad value of not only maintaining our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that will beget further procurements and interoperability between the US-Philippine alliance, but the very practical application of the VFA that enables these activities like port calls, like engagements, like exercises,” Cooper also said in the interview, a transcript of which was provided by the US Embassy in Manila to reporters covering the beat.
Cooper said the VFA provides the basis for the conduct of more than 300 military exercises between Filipino and US forces to enhance the capability and interoperability of both military forces.
Philippines defense and military officials declined to comment on the formal termination of the VFA, but a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the termination will be to the disadvantage of both the Philippines and US armed forces.
The source said that with the VFA gone, American troops can no longer stay in the country beyond 21 days, which he said will impact adversely on joint military exercises between US and Filipino troops in the country.
“They (both sides) will lose the capacity to exercise meaningfully because (US) troops cannot enter our country en masse,” the source added.
Reminded that joint military exercises were already held before the VFA was signed in 1998, the source said: “Yes, but small scale. They will have to apply for visa if they are staying here for more than 21 days, then they have to pass through our airports (because) mere IDs will not suffice.”
He said US deployment in the country, like a similar one ongoing in Mindanao, will also be compromised.
“They will have to pullout their troops in Mindanao who are providing additional intelligence. They cannot stay because they will have no (cover), (because) the VFA is their cover,” he said.
About a hundred Americans are currently in Mindanao, providing training to Filipino troops and intelligence officials in the country’s continued fight against terrorists in the area.
The source implied Cabinet officials were against the termination of the VFA, saying that “he (President Duterte) didn’t listen to the Cabinet, that’s the problem.”
Cooper said Washington and Manila is set to hold next month a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue where he said he expects the VFA to be discussed.
“There’s an ongoing communication, and because of our shared interests when it comes to freedom of navigation, freedom of movement as well as joint security interests and future procurements, there is part of the broader dialogue why there remains value in the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he added.
‘SAVE THE VFA’
The President on Monday night claimed there were efforts from the camp of US President Donald Trump and other American officials to “save” the VFA but he had rejected them.
Panelo said emissaries could have been sent by the US to Duterte to express the “desire of the President of the US,” but said he was not aware who the emissaries were.
Duterte and Trump has not talked yet, the spokesman said.
Panelo said at present the Philippines-US relations “remains warm” but he is hoping that “it could be warmer”.
“Why? Because I’ve been noticing that who have been critical of the US government policies have been given the preferential attention of the US government. ‘Pag nababanatan sila, sinusuyo nila; iyong mga kakampi nila eh, inaapi nila. Parang ganoon ang dating eh (Why? Because I’ve noticed that who have been critical of the US government policies have been given preferential attention. If they are criticized, they try to woo them; while their allies are ill-treated. That’s how it seems),” he said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he will call for a caucus among senators to discuss if they can bring the sense of the Senate to the Supreme Court that they must be involved in the termination of treaty.
“The thinking of some senators is that if we are asked to ratify (an agreement) by the Constitution, then it means that we must be able to ratify also upon termination. We will talk with other members of the Senate, we’ll take it up in a caucus,” Sotto said.
The Senate on Monday night adopted Resolution 312 urging President Duterte to reconsider the termination of the VFA while the Senate is still conducting a thorough review of the treaty.
The resolution was introduced by Sotto, Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon, and Sen. Panfilo Lacson.
The senators asserted that the decision to end the agreement must be reviewed seriously such that it will not affect the security and economy of the Philippines and its neighbors in the Asia Pacific region.
Sotto said there is also another pending resolution in the Senate wherein senators “are looking at the possibility that ‘we approve, we ratify, we should also be consulted when it’s terminated’.”
Sotto said bringing the matter to the SC will clarify if the Senate’s sense matters.
Sen. Chistopher Go, a Duterte ally, said he respects his colleagues’ concern on being consulted in ending treaties but the decision to terminate the VFA was already made by the President.
“If they want a new agreement, they better wait for a new President on July 2022.
Terminated na, ano pa ba ang pinag-aawayan dito? (There is nothing to stand up for because it (VFA) is already terminated),” Go said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, Senate national defense committee chair, said the country cannot do anything about but brace for the impact of the VFA cancellation. “Like it or not, bad or good, nothing much can be done now but do a 180-day countdown upon receipt of the notice by Washington. What is certain is that the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty will now be reduced to a mere paper treaty as far as the US is concerned,” Lacson said.
As a former PNP chief, Lacson said the country’s intelligence capability will suffer since the US has been helping us with this through their state of the art equipment.
“Having said that, there’s no more intelligence information sharing in our fight against domestic and foreign terrorist acts, no more US military aid and financing that accounts for a good 52% of what they extend to the whole Asia-Pacific region. That may not include other intangible economic benefits and security from external threats in the West Philippine Sea, as well as humanitarian aid in times of disasters, epidemics and other crises,” Lacson said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said: “Whether or not we are ready for the impact is a matter that the President would have to consider in the course of his decision making. As
I said, this is a political decision and he is the political leader. He holds himself responsible for the people for the consequences of the political decision.”
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said: “Given our ongoing dispute in the West Philippine Sea, this move favors China and no longer comes as a surprise given how meek and subservient the administration has been toward China in matters not only of sovereignty but even on matters of public health and safety, as in the coronavirus epidemic.”
Pangilinan reiterated Sotto’s statement and said: “We believe such a notice is only valid with the concurrence of the Senate. The Senate therefore must assert its constitutional role in concurring with such a termination before it can take effect.”
SCRAP MDT, EDCA TOO
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate urged Duterte to terminate the MDT and the EDCA with the United States as a follow through to the scrapping of the VFA.
“President Duterte should not stop with the scrapping of VFA only, MDT and EDCA should also be terminated as they are as onerous and violative, too, of our national sovereignty.
They are vestiges of neocolonial control of the US, a tool for direct intervention in the country, facilitating for instance the return of their basing facilities, interference in the counterinsurgency operations,” he said.
Rep. Ferdinand Gaite, also of Bayan Muna, said the MDT, as the “overarching” agreement that ties the Philippines to the United States militarily, “must also go.”
“For years, this agreement has always put us in danger of being involved in the numerous wars of aggression that the United States continuously launched. It’s time to say ‘no more,’ and be part of the peace-loving community of nations opposing US-led and sponsored wars,” added Gaite.
“The government should also remove any threat of being entangled in US wars by ensuring the immediate dismantling or turnover of all American military facilities and the expulsion of all American troops after VFA’s official termination 180 days from today,” he added.
“The American facilities in Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan, Cebu built through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA must also be dismantled,” Gaite said. – With Victor Reyes, Raymond Africa and Wendell Vigilia