BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and VICTOR REYES
UNITED States President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he did not mind President Duterte’s decision to end a decades-old military agreement with the United States, a position at odds with that of his defense secretary who viewed the move with dismay.
The Philippine government on Tuesday announced the termination of the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a development which US defense Secretary Mark Esper called as “unfortunate” amid efforts by Washington and its allies to press China to abide by “international rules” in Asia.
The US embassy in Manila called it “a serious step with significant implications.”
Duterte’s decision was sparked by the revocation of the visa issued to administration ally Sen. Ronald dela Rosa. The termination will take legal effect in 180 days.
“I don’t really mind if they would like to do that, it will save a lot of money,” Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about Duterte’s move and whether anything could be done to get him to reconsider. “My views are different from others,” he added.
Trump has frequently expressed a desire to bring US military forces home from decades-long deployments abroad and has strong-armed some allies into paying more for the right to US defense.
Trump said the United States had helped the Philippines defeat Islamic State militants. He said he had “a very good” relationship with Duterte and added: “We’ll see what happens.”
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman, said Malacañang respects Trump’s opinion and would even tell him “welcome” after the American leader thanked the Philippines for saving them money in military and humanitarian assistance.
“Well, we can understand. Again, as I said, when you do something that is unsatisfactory to the other side, natural lang iyon na may sasabihin sila. We respect that the way they should respect ours (Well, we can understand. Again, as I said, when you do something that is unsatisfactory to the other side, it’s only natural that they would say something. We respect that the way they should respect ours),” said Panelo in one of the radio and television interviews he had Thursday morning prior to a briefing at the Palace.
During the briefing, Panelo said he was not sure if Trump was serious in his expression of gratitude but maintained that the termination of the VFA is aimed at strengthening the country’s capabilities to defend itself against future attacks.
“He is welcome. If he said that, how can we be more popish than the pope? Maybe he agrees with the position of the President that it is time that we stand on our own resources and defend our country from enemies of the state by ourselves and not rely on the help of other countries. We weaken ourselves if we keep on being parasites to any of the countries,” he said.
END OF MILITARY EXERCISES
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said military exercises between Philippine and US forces will be discontinued once the termination of the VFA becomes effective in August.
“Once the termination is final, we will cease to have exercises with them (Americans),” Lorenzana said in a statement.
This was Lorenzana’s first public comment since the Department of Foreign Affairs sent the official notice of termination of the agreement to the US Embassy in Manila.
Lorenzana however said military exercises between the two armed forces will continue as scheduled while the VFA is still in place.
“With the formal serving of the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, this year’s planned military exercises with the Americans shall proceed as scheduled within the 180 days that the VFA remains in force,” he said.
Over 300 military engagements are scheduled between the two forces for the entire 2020.
These engagements include training exercises, expert exchanges, functional training and exchanges, planning and table top exercises.
It was not immediately clear how many of these engagements are military exercises.
Lorenzana said the Americans may choose to stop the military exercise even before the formal termination of the VFA.
A senior military official, on condition of anonymity, said the defense and military establishments are bracing for possible reduction in US assistance to the Armed Forces following the scrapping of the VFA that provides legal cover to visiting US troops in the country.
“For sure, liberals in the US Congress and their lobbyists will exert efforts to cut support to the Philippine military as a consequence of the VFA termination,” the official said, adding: “I anticipate a big debate in the US if they will reduce assistance.”
The US has provided the Philippine military billions of pesos worth of defense equipment and weapons over the past years.
In November last year, Mark Clark, director for Office of Maritime Southeast Asia at the US State Department, said Washington has provided $550 million in defense assistance to the Philippines from 2016 to 2019.
The source said the Armed Forces will have to rely on its modernization program to improve its capability, noting that a number of big-ticket items, including brand new frigates, are due for delivery this year.
“Final note, we have strong security alliance with Japan, ASEAN, Korea, UK, and others, but we don’t have VFA with them. So there is more to our relations with US even without VFA,” he added.
Nevertheless, the source said “it is to the US interest to continue, sustain, and even increase their support to the Philippine military, even with the cancellation of VFA”, noting that the US needs the Philippines.
On Esper’s comment that the Philippine termination of the VFA was a “move in the wrong direction”, the source said Esper’s reaction was “expected.”
“They were really hurt by the decision because it affected the US rotational presence in the region, especially in the Philippines, which has high geo-strategic importance to the US vis-a-vis the posturing of China. I believe they will assess their position and will be more careful on how they will proceed forward with the relations,” the source said.
The source said he also expects a reduction in the number of military engagements between the two armed forces.
“Do you know that there are more than 300 bilateral engagements annually between the US and Philippine military/security agencies. Cut them to half, there are still a lot,” he said.
The engagements include the huge-scale Balikatan exercise, which is scheduled to be held in May 3 to 15. Last year’s Balikatan was held in April and was participated in by 3,500 US servicemen and 4,000 Filipino troops.
He said the VFA termination “is just a short term hiccup brought about by the current political dynamics both here and in the US.”
“The AFP and our counterparts are professional enough to understand that while we follow policy based on political directives, we also understand that many of these policies are short term and may change as fast as the leaders and administration of each country changes,” he said.
“What is important is we rise above the political noise and sustain our long term security alliance. And finally, the Philippines and AFP should start to really pursue an independent and self reliant defense posture, not relying on allies to fill its capability gap, and be able to address the various threats to national security on its own,” he added.
He said he expects the Philippine and US armed forces “will find a way to sustain the relations and navigate the choppy political waters”, adding: “I can’t explain the reason behind except that we share a common political and security interest in the region.”
Meanwhile, a senior security official said the defense and military establishments are expecting reduced defense aid from the Americans.
“We are expecting the worse but we will survive without the VFA. We have to modernize on our own,” another senior security official said also on condition of anonymity, referring to the defense and military establishments.
While the Philippines faces the risk of reduced military assistance from US, the source said the Americans “stand to lose more” because “the focus of the Americans is Indo Pacific region, against Chinese expansionism. That would be affected (since) they won’t be able to use the Philippines.”
US has partnered with Philippines and other nations in deterring China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and in ensuring freedom of navigation in the area.
Told that China may step up bullying the Philippines if US reduced its presence in the Philippines, the source said: “We thought about that already. We are prepared for the worse.”
“We have yet to reach a credible defense posture. We have to pursue our own modernization. We are exerting efforts to achieve a credible defense posture. We need not to be dependent on them (US). We have funds, though not that much,” he said.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said government should now do more spending on national defense following the abrogation of the VFA.
Locsin said ramping up defense spending will mean we will become a more dependable ally of Washington.
Manila and Washington has an existing Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) that binds the two to come to each other’s aid if there is an external attack or foreign invasion.
“US protected us from Soviet and Chinese communism, stop the fall of the Philippine domino by fighting like hell in Vietnam and deterred another round of reef-grabbing. Time to pay our own way to our own sovereign defense. Then the US will be even more a dependable ally,” Locsin said.
“We stand by our own guns by buying our own with a defense budget commensurate to the threats to our sovereignty,” he added.
The ill-equipped Armed Forces of the Philippines is in the midst of a modernization program but Duterte has cut by half the P600 billion allocated for the Second Horizon project which started in 2016 and will last until 2022.
Locsin asked critics of the move to “stop whining.”
“Let’s stop whining. We look weak if not fairy-like to potential aggressors in Southeast Asia.
Our boys have fought our wars with not much in their hands. Let our officials honor them by talking tough on their behalf against potential aggressors not former allies,” he said.
He added that a military alliance like what we have with the US is for mutual protection and not for babying allies who he noted should be “weaned from mother’s milk.”
“The sight of grown men sucking teats is pathetic. Mutual sides mean both sides able to stand on their own and also stand by their ally. Time to grow up. Stop whining,” he also said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, Senate committee on national defense and security chair, said Duterte’s decision to scrap the agreement was like exposing the country first to foreign threats before finding ways on how to shield it.
“While admittedly, the VFA is not perfect for the Philippines as far as equitability is concerned, the timing and reasons for its abrogation are way off the mark. The thing is, it is not the smartest move of the President to expose ourselves naked first before looking for other options for cover,” Lacson said.