VFA cancellation ‘unfortunate’: US defense chief

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    UNITED States defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the Philippine government’s “unfortunate” decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries was “a move in the wrong direction.”

    Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin on Tuesday sent formal notice to Washington that Manila was scrapping the VFA. The official notice of termination was sent to the US embassy in Manila. The termination will become 180 days after notification.

    “In my view, it’s unfortunate that they (Philippine officials) would make this move. As you all know, as some of you know, I was just there,” said Esper on Tuesday (US time) while en route to Europe.

    Esper visited the Philippines in November last year and met with defense officials led by defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

    “I do think it (was) a move in the wrong direction,” Esper added, noting how Washington has played an active role in deterring China’s aggressive activities in the West Philippine Sea, which is being claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

    He noted how the US and the Philippines and a number of partners and allies in the region say to the Chinese, “You must obey the international rules of order. You must obey, you know, abide by international norms.”

    “And as we try and, you know, bolster our presence and compete with them (Chinese) in this era of great power competition, I think it’s (termination) a move in the wrong direction for, again, for the long-standing relationship we’ve had with the Philippines for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries,” Esper also said.

    He was quick to add, though: “But look, we just got the notification last night. We’ve got to read it. We’ve got to digest it. One hundred and eighty days. We’ve got to work through it, and… and we’ll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time.”

    Reacting to Esper’s statement, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said the opposition of American officials to the termination of the VFA was expected since the move will affect the United States’ global strategic defense positioning, among others.

    Panelo, concurrent presidential spokesman, said as far as the Philippines was concerned, the abrogation of the VFA was the “right direction for the Philippines which should have been done a long time ago.”

    “The Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, Mr. Mark Esper, has been quoted as saying that the withdrawal of the Philippines from the Visiting Forces Agreement with their country is ‘a move in the wrong direction.’ We expect no less for such a reaction from the US government following its receipt of the notice of termination of the VFA. Such a commentary is expected given that the VFA favors the US and its abrogation affects its global strategic defensive positioning,” he said.

    Panelo maintained that it is time for the Philippines to focus on strengthening its own defense capabilities instead of relying more on the help of other countries.

    He reiterated that the termination was a “studied action” that is consistent and pursuant to the independent foreign policy of Duterte.

    “Reliance on another country for our own defenses against the enemies of the state will ultimately weaken and stagnate our defense mechanisms. We must stand on our own and put a stop to being a parasite to another country in protecting our independence and sovereignty,” he said.

    “As the President says, ‘we are friends to all, enemies to none.’ Should any country however threaten our territorial integrity and assault our sovereignty, we will rise by our own resources and valiantly defend our motherland the way our forefathers did during their time,” he added.

    IMPACT TO THE MILITARY

    Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Filemon Santos Jr., who was confirmed by the bicameral Commission on Appointments on Wednesday, said the scrapping of the VFA will affect the capabilities of the AFP since the military has been working hand in hand with their US counterparts in countering international terrorism, especially in intelligence gathering, and in relief and rescue operations in times of disasters.

    In an interview with reporters after his confirmation, Santos said the AFP has to learn to live without the VFA, noting how the military carried on without US support after senators voted to remove the US bases in the country in the 1990s.

    “We (AFP) have lived before nung nawala ang bases agreement, 1991 hanggang 1997.

    Wala naman nangyari sa amin. We are with whatever will be (We have lived when the bases agreement was scrapped, 1991 up to 1997. Nothing bad happened to us. We are with whatever will be),” Santos said.

    He said that while the cancellation of the agreement will impact on security issues, the AFP will not be totally on the losing edge since the military already has equipment like airplanes and ships which it is now using for combat and other operations.

    On the intelligence information sharing aspect, Santos said the VFA termination has no effect on both international and local terrorists since “our intel people are doing leg work actually.”

    He added scrapping the VFA will not affect the country’s defense: “Hindi naman, as long our foreign policy is independent… Actually the decision of the President, walang problema sa AFP because the President is very supportive to us (I don’t think so [that our country’s defense will be affected] as long as our foreign policy is independent. The AFP does not see a problem with the President’s decision [to scrap the VFA] because the President is very supportive to us),” he said, adding that it is during the time of Duterte that the AFP has been greatly modernized.

    “We could move on without the VFA,” he stressed.

    Santos said since the VFA will be officially terminated after 180 days, scheduled Baliktan exercises with the US soldiers in May will still push through.

    Santos to fill in the gap brought about by the nullification of the VFA, the AFP has presented its plans to Lorenzana, including the strengthening of bilateral relations with allied countries such as South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and even China.
    No member of the CA opposed Santos’ confirmation.

    Also unanimously confirmed by the CA was the ad interim appointment of Commodore Luzviminda Camacho, the first woman to command a Philippine Navy ship.

    Santos is a graduate of Philippine Military Academy Class of 1986, the same class as Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa. He was appointed by the President as AFP chief of staff last month.

    Before his appointment, Santos served as commander of the 7th Infantry Division before he became the 11th commander of the Eastern Mindanao Command. He also became chief of the 11th Intelligence Service Unit based in Davao City, and the Army’s Group Commander of the Intelligence Service Group.

    MDT, EDCA

    Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the termination of the VFA will have a negative effect on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Manila and Washington.

    But Guevarra said despite this, he is confident the country will be able “to survive” the effects of the decision.

    “The termination of the VFA will make the EDCA practically useless and the MDT a hollow agreement, but again note this: we survived the historic termination of the RP-US military bases agreement, there’s no reason why we shall not survive the termination of a mere visiting forces agreement,” Guevarra said.

    EDCA allows the US to send troops to the country for extended stays and allows Washington to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases, for both US and Filipino forces, but not permanently.

    The MDT, on the other hand, binds both countries to come to its other’s aid if its troops, ships or aircraft come under attack by a foreign aggressor.

    US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R.Clark Cooper has earlier said the VFA termination could mean an end to joint military operation and training exercises between Washington and Manila.

    Asked if termination was the final recommendation of the Cabinet cluster on peace, justice and security or the DOJ to Duterte with regards the VFA, Guevarra refused to answer.

    “The Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (PCVFA) had differing views but ended up leaving it to the president’s judgment. The DOJ subsequently submitted its memo for the President, presenting the pros and cons and making its own recommendation,” Guevarra said.

    “Whether we supported the President’s position or recommended another option is now water under the bridge but one thing is clear, the President had everything he needed to know before he made up his mind to terminate the VFA,” he added.

    Guevarra said that personally, he is of the opinion that the MDT should not be scrapped, too, though he said the PCVFA did not present any recommendation on what could be done to have a new and improved VFA or a better agreement under the MDT.

    “The basic MDT need not be scrapped. It is the umbrella agreement. Maybe in the future new arrangements may be entered into that will give teeth and muscle to this treaty, or it may be scrapped altogether. Foreign policy is dynamic, it evolves with the times,” he said.

    Guevarra said the PCVFA also did not recommend another similar agreement that Manila could enter with other countries, although it was mentioned that the country may consider having similar VFAs with other countries to continue the training of military personnel.

    Aside from the US, the Philippines has a similar VFA with Australia and reports said Japan is also looking to have a similar arrangement. – With Jocelyn Montemayor, Raymond Africa and Ashzel Hachero