Palace orders ‘impact assessment’ of VFA termination

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    MALACAÑANG has asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to do a “preliminary impact assessment” on the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Monday.

    Guevarra said the new order has prompted him to hold the submission today of the DOJ’s memorandum on the procedure for the annulment of the US-PH treaty, which governs the conduct of joint military exercises and maneuvers in the country.

    “We have just been instructed today to expand the scope of our study to include a preliminary impact assessment on the possible termination of the VFA,” Guevarra said.

    The study, he said, will include “everything such as its impact on security, economy, on foreign relations and other agreements Manila has with Washington, such as the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.”

    The 1951 MDT binds both parties to come to its other’s aid if its troops, ships or aircrafts are attacked. On the other hand, the 2014 EDCA allows US troops extended stays in the country and to build and operate temporary facilities in Philippine bases for the use of both US and Filipino forces. The VFA came into force on May 27, 1999.

    President Duterte has threatened to terminate the VFA following the decision of the United States to cancel the visa of Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa in the light of a US Senate resolution condemning the government’s bloody war on illegal drugs, and another resolution barring the entry of government officials who were allegedly behind the trumped-up drug charges filed against detained Sen. Leila de Lima.

    Guevarra declined to answer when asked why Malacañang wanted an assessment of the VFA termination’s impact on the Philippine government when it seemed so sure last week of Duterte’s decision.

    “Only Malacañang can answer that,” he said, adding: “It is my understanding that the President has threatened, but has not given an order, to terminate the VFA. That’s why his office has requested us to study the potential impact of such termination.”

    Guevarra said he will ask the Cabinet cluster on justice, peace and security and the VFA Commission for an “in-depth and comprehensive impact assessment.”

    “Yung sa legal side, madali lang gawin. ‘Yung impact assessment ang kailangan ng masusing pag-aaral (The legal aspect is easy to complete. The impact assessment, though, will need a comprehensive study.) The timeframe depends on how soon the Cabinet cluster or the VFA Commission can convene,” he also said.

    The DOJ is part of the Cabinet cluster on justice, peace and security. The other member agencies are the Department of National Defense, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Philippine National Police, Department of Foreign Affairs, National Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Executive Secretary and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

    GOOD FOR CHINA

    Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the termination of the VFA will work to the advantage of China.

    “Ako, ang makikinabang diyan ay China. So, bakit tayo magiging padalos- dalos kung ang makikinabang sa ganong pangyayari ay China (For me, China will benefit from it [scrapping of the VFA]. So, why will be in a rush if China will benefit out of that move?),” Pangilinan said in a chance interview.

    Pangilinan did not elaborate as to how China will benefit from such move, but China is known to have encroached in islands which sit well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson urged Malacañang to slow down on its plan, reiterating earlier warnings that the US might also scrap the MDT and the EDCA in retaliation.

    “But what if dahil sa move natin, if at all mag-push through, gumanti ang kabilang party, sabihin nila altogether scarp na rin natin? (But what if the other party [US] retaliates if the move to end the VFA pushes through?),” Lacson said, warning that other countries like Australia might also be compromised with the cancellation of the PH-US treaty.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo dismissed such concerns. “That’s in the realm of speculation. Number two, I think the treaties benefit more the United States than the Philippines. Strategically, the US needs to be in almost any part of the world to secure itself from its perceived enemies,” Panelo said.

    Lacson lamented the planned annulment of the VFA was premised on a wrong reason.

    “I will be very blunt. It’s all for the wrong reason. And of course they are trying to rectify that by saying ‘yan lang ang parang finally nag-break ng camel’s back, so to speak. Pero kung ‘yan talaga ang reason, I don’t see the proportionateness. Kasi initially that was the only reason advanced by the President, kung hindi i-correct, he threatened to abrogate (I will be very blunt. It’s all for the wrong reason. And of course they are trying to rectify that by saying there are other reason but that this broke the camel’s back, so to speak. But if that is the real reason, I don’t see the proportionateness. Because initially that was the reason advanced by the President, that if the US does not correct [its move on Dela Rosa’s visa], he threatened to abrogate),” Lacson said.

    Lacson said if all treaties with the US are terminated, the country will be in the losing edge in terms of national security, especially in our fight against terrorism since the US provides us with intelligence information gathered through its sophisticated technology.

    “Kaya we’re talking of national security, national integrity, kasama ang factor na meron tayong West Philippine Sea. Kasama lahat ‘yan. When we say national security, it compasses everything, including but not limited to our fight against terrorism (We are talking here of national security, national integrity, and we also have the West Philippine Sea factor. Everything is included here. When we say national security, it encompasses everything, including but not limited to our fight against terrorism),” he said.

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III said senators should discuss the issue among themselves since it was the Senate that ratified it. He admitted, though, that the Senate’s position will not have any weight on the President’s decision.

    He said the outcome of the talk will serve to inform the US of the perspective of the President for such threat to end the VFA.

    PALACE DEFENSE

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo insisted the President’s decision was the result of careful studies and was not whimsical, as critics have claimed.

    Panelo, along with Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, said the President was influenced by a series of “disrespectful” acts committed by several American officials.

    “It’s not, as expressed by some, a decision on a whim. It is a studied response to acts that the President deems to be not only an intrusion but an assault to the sovereignty of this country. And to those who are thinking that this is a rush judgment, let me remind them that this President is a tactical and thinking president,” Panelo said.

    He said the “disrespectful acts” includes the demand of some US senators for the release of De Lima, a US Senate Resolution condemning alleged human rights violations which he said was part of a cycle of lies peddled by the critics and detractors of the President, and the barring of entry of certain Philippine government officials who were involved with De Lima’s detention.

    He said the last straw was the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa.

    “The cancellation of Sen. Bato’s visa was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a series of disrespectful acts by some of the US Senators,” he said, adding the Philippine government is not requiring the US to explain its reasons for the visa nullification “but we feel that as a matter of courtesy to countries who are allies, it should have given us reasons therefore.”

    Sotto surmised the cancellation was simply one of the factors for his desire to scrap the VFA.

    “Huwag nilang ibintang sa visa. Maaaring isa sa mga catalyst lang ‘yun pero hindi ‘yan ang trigger, maraming trigger (let us not blame the cancellation of Sen. Dela Rosa’s visa as the main reason but in can be one of the catalysts, but it was not the trigger),” Sotto said.

    Sen. Christopher Go said the US’ “attack” on Dela Rosa can be taken as an attack against the government.

    “Alam niyo naman si Pangulong Duerte, hindi naman nangunguna ‘yan, subalit yung atake niyo kay Sen. Bato ay atake na rin po sa pamahalaan (We all know that the President will not start a fight but the attack on Sen. Dela Rosa was also an attack on the government),” Go said.

    Go said the US must justify its decision.

    “Kung ano man ang naging rason ninyo sa pagkansela ng visa ni Sen. Bato, you should explain it to the public. I-explain niyo muna bakit niyo kinansela. Kung sasabihin niyo na dahil sa kay Sen. De Lima, now you have a problem. Malaki problema ninyo (The US must explain to the public whatever its reason was for the cancellation of Sen. Dela Rosa’s visa.

    If the US will say that it is all because of the detention of Sen Leila de Lima, now you have a problem. You have a very big problem,),” Go said. – With Raymond Africa and Jocelyn Montemayor