Senate ally cautions Palace on VFA termination

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    ADMINISTRATION ally Sen. Aquilino Pimentel on Sunday cautioned Malacañang against whimsically terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States government, saying the move could adversely affected diplomatic relations between the two countries.

    Pimentel, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, was quick to acknowledge though that President Duterte can unilaterally terminate the agreement sans the approval of the Senate.

    The senator said the President can end any treaty the country has entered into with another country as embodied in the Constitution, which he noted does not state that lawmakers need to approve of the cancellation.

    Pimentel said the only time lawmakers need to approve a treaty is before the agreement is signed by the country.

    President Duterte on Thursday night threatened to end the VFA if the US will not reverse its decision to cancel the visa of Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa, the President’s first PNP chief and main architect of the administration’s war on drugs. He gave the US a one-month ultimatum to re-issue Dela Rosa’s visa.

    Pimentel the President’s verbal order to terminate the VFA is not sufficient since such needs a formal notice which will be coursed through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

    Pimentel said Malacañang should exercise caution in pushing for the cancellation of the agreement lest the United States feel “insulted” and decide to get even by doing the same on other standing treaties or agreements it has forged with the Philippine government, such as the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

    “Ang appeal lang natin pagdating sa foreign relations hinay-hinay tayo, pag-isipan muna natin. Meron din ang kabila, meron pa tayong ibang treaty sa US. Kasi kung ma-insulto sila sa pag-alis ng VFA puwede pa rin sila bumawi sa iba pang treaty, baka magulat na lang tayo. Basta respeto na lang sa isa’t-isa, we are sovereign states. Mag-anticipate na lang tayo na meron din sila sovereignty to withdraw. Lahat ‘yan dapat timbangin (My appeal is that we should slow down, think well when it comes to foreign relations. We have other standing treaties with the US and if they (Americans) feel insulted when we terminate the VFA, they can retaliate by scrapping the other treaties, which might catch us by surprise.

    The bottom line here is that we must respect each other as sovereign states but we must anticipate that the US, too, has the sovereignty to withdraw the other treaties. All of that must be given weight,” Pimentel said in an interview over radio dzBB on Sunday.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo did not share Pimentel’s concerns.

    Panelo was confident that the country’s other agreements and current alliance with the United States will remain even if the VFA is terminated.

    “Nandoon pa rin. Hindi naman mababago iyun. Iyun lang namang VFA ang pinag-uusapan (It’s still there. It will not change. We are only talking about the VFA),” Panelo said in a radio interview.

    Panelo said it will not be a total loss to the Philippines if the VFA was terminated because it provided more “privileges” to the American soldiers like giving them entry to the Philippines even without a visa or passport, and granting the US jurisdiction over their soldiers who are involved in certain crimes committed in the Philippine, unless the crimes are of particular importance to the country.

    He said the government’s campaign against terrorism should not suffer nor should joint military exercises like the Balikatan be affected.

    “Uulitin natin, iyung VFA refers more to the privileges granted to the American military. It does not include all other treaties which are and relative to the security of the Philippines, and alliance to the United States (I repeat: the VFA refers more to the privileges granted to the American military. It does not include all other treaties which are and relative to the security of the Philippines, and alliance to the United States),” he said.

    Panelo said people also should not misconstrue that the termination of the VFA will lead to the drawing of similar arrangements with other countries like China and Russia.

    Panelo on Friday said the DFA had already started the process of terminating the VFA.

    On Sunday, Panelo said Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin had mentioned that he had already prepared the letter informing the US government that the Philippines wants the VFA terminate. He said he is not sure if Locsin had already sent the letter to the US government.

    Pimentel said he will ask the DFA and the Department of National Defense to brief senators on the developments.

    Former Philippine ambassador to the United Nations Lauro Baja said the planned cancellation of the VFA will affect not only the country but also our neighbors.

    Baja said the VFA which governs the conduct of US military troops while they are in the country during training exercises and maneuvers have strategic importance for Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

    “We must also consider this because some of our ASEAN neighbors and our allies would also like the presence of the US for stability in the area, in the region,”Baja said on GMA’s Balitanghali.

    He said he is optimistic though that even if the VFA was cancelled or terminated, it will not affect other agreements and the existing alliance between Manila and Washington.

    “It might affect the relation but not the existential relations between the two countries,” he said, adding that the relationship between Manila and Washington does not only hinge only on the military aspect but also on their economic, cultural and people-to-people ties.

    Former Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia Jr. has said that terminating the VFA could deal a blow to Manila’s effort to combat terrorism.

    Cuisia said it was the US who provided most of the counter-terrorism assistance to Manila, aside from equipment to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines and improve its maritime domain awareness.

    Vice President Leni Robredo’s camp said the termination of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States should be undertaken based on valid grounds and not on the whims of Duterte.

    Former Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez said a bilateral accord like the VFA should not be abrogated just because Dela Rosa’s US visa was canceled but because of valid issues that should be thoroughly debated upon first.

    “Madaming mga nagki-criticize sa ibang mga probisyon ng VFA, unequal daw, etc., sa akin, kung ganoon ang pananaw, okay na pag-aralan at tutukan doon sa ganoong anggulo pero huwag doon sa personal na parang, ‘di ba, dahil binawi iyong visa ng isang senador, mag-aalburoto naman tayo at tatapusin natin itong ganitong klaseng kasunduan na may mas malaking implikasyon para sa ating bansa (Many criticize some of the provisions of the VFA, saying it’s unequal. To me, that angle should be reviewed – it should not be taken personally. We’ll end such an agreement which has a huge implication on our country just because a senator’s visa was cancelled),” Gutierrez said over RMN-DZXL.

    “There are personal remedies,” he said. “Ang hirap naman na parang gagawin mong magkatumbas iyong cancellation ng visa sa isang agreement sa pagitan ng dalawang bansa (It’s difficult to make it appear that the cancellation of an agreement between two countries is equal to the visa cancellation),” he also said.

    Pimentel said the Philippines cannot do anything about Dela Rosa’s visa since it is the sovereign right of the United States to refuse the entry of certain people to its territory.
    Sen. Panfilo Lacson agreed with Pimentel.

    “US visa is a conditional authorization granted to a foreigner. It may be cancelled without explanation or justification. The VFA is a bilateral agreement between the PH and US that went through some careful and diplomatic discussion. Pray tell, where is the connection?” Lacson said.

    Dela Rosa said he understands how the President felt when he confirmed to the media that his US visa has been cancelled.

    “It’s not at all about me. It’s about foreign relations that is very one-sided: ang kanilang sundalo libre labas-pasok sa ating republika, tapos ang isang senador bawal dahil sa intensiyon na panghimasukan an gating domestic affairs that is also an insult to our sovereignty (It’s not at all about me. It’s about foreign relations that is very one-sided: their soldiers can freely enter our country while a senator cannot because of their intention to meddle with our domestic affairs that is also an insult to our sovereignty),” Dela Rosa said in an interview over radio dwIZ on Saturday. – With Jocelyn Montemayor, Wendell Vigilia and Ashzel Hachero