It’s official: Philippines terminates Visiting Forces Agreement with US

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President Rodrigo Duterte | Malacañang photo by Ace Morandante

The Philippines has formally sent a notice terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, Malacañang announced on Tuesday, February 11. 

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea on Monday night to inform Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. to go ahead and send a notice ending the 20-year-old military pact with the United States, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo relayed in a press briefing. 

“The Executive Secretary sent the message to Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin, and the latter signed the notice of termination and then sent it to the U.S. government today,” the spokesperson said. 

Locsin confirmed in a tweet that the “Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of the United States has received the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement.”

“As a diplomatic courtesy there will be no further factual announcements following this self-explanatory development,” he wrote. 

Duterte is eyeing a more self-reliant Philippine military rather than seeking a military agreement with another country, Panelo explained.

 “The president said it’s about time we rely on [ourselves]. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country…From the way he talks, parang tayo na lang muna (let’s rather be self-reliant),” Panelo said.

In a statement on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said the move is “a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippine alliance.”

“We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests,” the statement read, adding that it will “remain committed to the friendship between our two peoples.” 

The VFA, which came into force in 1999, covers the conduct of U.S. soldiers in the Philippines.

Among the provisions of the deal include lax visa and passport policies for U.S. troops, and the rights of the U.S. government to retain its jurisdiction over its military personnel when they commit crimes in the Philippines.

On January 23, Duterte threatened to scrap the VFA following the U.S.’ cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa. The president gave the U.S. a month to “correct” the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa, however, he ordered the start of the termination process the following day.

Ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999, the VFA can be terminated through a written notice from either of the countries, taking effect 180 days after the notification.

‘Trump tried to save VFA’

Duterte on Monday revealed that U.S. President Donald Trump was “trying to save” the VFA from being terminated.

But, the Philippine president said that he refused to change his mind about the termination due to the allegedly “disrespectful” acts displayed by Americans, such as threatening to withhold aid from the country if opposition Senator Leila de Lima is not released.

De Lima is currently detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center at Camp Crame in Quezon City due to her reported involvement in the illegal drug trade. 

“Now, I’ll make it public, public official ako (I am a public official). Si Trump, pati yung others (Trump and the others) are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. Sabi ko, ayoko (I said, ‘I don’t want to’). One is that napaka bastos ng Amerikano. Talagang sobrang bastos (Americans are so rude. They’re really rude),” Duterte said during a gathering of local executives in Pasay.

“Imagine demanding the release of De Lima under threat that we will not receive the aid, that all persons who had a hand in the imprisonment of De Lima will not be allowed to go to the U.S.? What is there in America?” he added.

Duterte also denied that he killed thousands of innocent people, slamming U.S. senators who criticized his war against illegal drugs.

“Tapos EJK. Wala man. Nagsabi pinatay ko daw. Sino man pinatay ko (And then extrajudicial killings. There’s none. They say I killed them. Who did I kill)?” he said.

“Sinabi ko (I said) ‘do not destroy my country because if you destroy my country I will kill you,’” he added.

Duterte noted that U.S. senators went too far in insulting the Philippine government.

“Sobra sila kung uminsulto kasi (They have insulted us too much), bordering on the trashing of our sovereignty, wiping the s*** of the dog if you step on one. Americans went too far. Somebody has to remind them,” he said.

Military engagements to be affected 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper said that the VFA termination would affect hundreds of “engagements and exercises” between the Philippine and American militaries. One of the annual exercises is the “Balikatan,” which is to maintain the security relationship between the two countries, conduct counterterrorism operations and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

“[T]he United States has about 300 engagements and exercises that we conduct bilaterally with the Philippines,” he said Monday during a phone briefing with reporters. 

“What’s at risk without a VFA? Well, without a VFA, it puts at risk things like these engagements, like these exercises,” he said, pointing out that there is “a recognized, broad value of not only maintaining our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will beget further procurements and interoperability between the U.S.-Philippine alliance, but the very practical application of a Visiting Forces Agreement that enables these activities like port calls, like engagements, like exercises.”

Senate resolution

The Philippine Senate, meanwhile, adopted a resolution asking Duterte to reconsider his plan to terminate the VFA while the upper chamber conducts a “thorough” review of the military accord.

Senate Resolution No. 312 — introduced by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson — was adopted during its session on Monday.

While the resolution recognizes the president’s authority, it called for the Senate to “be given the opportunity to conduct a review and assessment of the impact of the withdrawal on the country’s security and economy, specifically with regard to intelligence information sharing, military aid and financing and technical assistance extended by the U.S. relative to the continuing threats posed by domestic and foreign terrorist groups, and ultimately to the stability and security in the Asia Pacific region.” 

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted Locsin, saying that the country’s withdrawal from the agreement would “negatively impact” the overall relations between the Philippines and the U.S.

“Therefore, a careful deliberation of these matters must be taken into account before finally arriving at a decision which will ultimately affect not only the security and economy of the Philippines but also that of our neighboring countries in the Asia Pacific region,” Pimentel said.

Sotto, meanwhile, pointed out that international relations are essential for the cooperation between countries, promotion of trade policies, the advancement of human culture as well as the maintenance of the peace and stability in the country.

“In a developing country like ours, it is more beneficial and prudent to maintain if not gain allies than to challenge our status quo. Our country is currently benefiting from our partner states which include the United States of America,” he said, adding that he prefers that the agreement be reviewed instead of scrapping it entirely. 

While Dela Rosa abstained from voting, all senators agreed when Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri moved to adopt the resolution. 

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