DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana yesterday said the defense and military establishments want to keep the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, whose termination had been twice suspended by the Philippine government.
Interviewed over ABS-CBN News Channel, Lorenzana cited the benefits that the Armed Forces have been getting from the agreement, which provides legal cover to joint exercises between US and Philippine armed forces.
In February last year, the Department of Foreign Affairs notified the US government of President Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA, a decision deemed to have been prompted by the US government’s move to cancel the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, a former police chief who led the government’s violent war on illegal drugs before he crossed the political line.
The termination was supposed to take effect 180 days after or in August last year.
However, Manila told Washington in June last year that it was suspending for six months the VFA termination amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In November or five months later, it announced it was suspending the accord’s termination for another six months.
In his introductory phone call to Lorenzana, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was said to have cited the importance of the VFA to the US government.
Asked if government would push through with the termination of the pact following Austin’s remarks, Lorenzana said: “The final decision to push through with the termination or withdraw the notice (of termination) rests on the President.”
But Lorenzana added: “We at the defense department and the Armed Forces, the general feeling in the Armed Forces is for the VFA to continue.”
Lorenzana said the main purpose of the VFA was to allow Philippine and US armed forces “to keep on developing doctrines, joint doctrines, interoperability in support of the (RP-US) Mutual Defense Treaty.”
The MDT, forged in 1951, mandates the two countries to act on common dangers in case of an armed attack in the Pacific area on either side.
Lorenzana said Filipino and US troops “exercise, develop doctrines and joint operations and interoperability” through the VFA.
“Our men also in the military are able to see some of the new equipment, they also familiarize with the new equipment,” said Lorenza, referring to the equipment that US forces bring during military exercises.
“And in the process, the military also decides on the basis of their experience with the new equipment if they will buy or not. So, it actually improves our capabilities as well through the exercises and by having experience on the new weapons,” he added.
Meanwhile, Lorenzana said Filipino and US troops may already hold large-scale Balikatan exercises this year. The exercises scheduled last year was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Lorenzana said he mentioned to Austin during their phone conversation the possibility of the Balikan exercises being held this year.
“Hopefully we can resume again in May,” said Lorenzana of the Balikatan exercise, the largest among the many annual military exercises held under the auspices of the VFA.