Terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States is a “move in the wrong direction,” according to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The Philippines’ move is “unfortunate,” Esper said, as the termination comes at a time when the U.S. and its allies are pushing China to abide by international norms.
“As we try to bolster our presence and compete with (China) in this era of great-power competition, I think it’s a move in the wrong direction, again for the long-standing relationship we’ve had with the Philippines, for their strategic location, for the ties between our peoples and our countries,” the defense chief told reporters on Wednesday, February 12.
Malacañang announced on Tuesday, February 11 that the Philippines has formally sent a notice terminating the VFA with the U.S.
“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,” Esper said.
The VFA, which came into force in 1999, covers the conduct of U.S. soldiers in the Philippines. It can be terminated through a written notice from either of the countries, taking effect 180 days after the notification.
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.
Following Esper’s remarks, Malacañang on Wednesday argued that the move is a step in the “right direction.”
“From our point of view, however, the decision to terminate the VFA is a move in the right direction that should have been done a long time ago,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.
‘Trump tried to save VFA’
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 visa dispute, however, he ordered the start of the termination process the following day.
Duterte on Monday, February 10 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
Albert del Rosario, a former foreign affairs secretary and envoy to the U.S., called the move a “national tragedy.”
“What is unfolding before us must be considered a national tragedy which should be resisted. It is our earnest hope that this most unfortunate decision to abrogate can be revisited,” he said.
He added that it would also put an end to other U.S.-PH treaties: the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper said that the VFA termination would affect about 300 “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.
“What’s at risk without a VFA? Well, without a VFA, it puts at risk things like these engagements, like these exercises,” Cooper 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.”
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.