There is a lot of uncertainty on the issue of our Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, with many of our highest officials unable to say exactly if we are terminating it, or we are just thinking about it, or it was just one of President Duterte’s hyperbolic statements.
It all started when the President denounced the US cancellation of Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s US visa without an explanation, only a statement that he could apply for a new one. It may have been related to the inclusion in the US budget bill of a rider that those responsible for Sen. Leila de Lima’s detention should not be allowed into the US.
Senator De la Rosa said he does not care one way or the other about the visa. But to the President, it did seem to be an unfriendly act by an ally. And so, in his characteristic manner, he said he would call for the termination of the VFA, a key part of PH-US relations, which had already been downgraded when the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 against extending the stay of US bases in the Philippines.
Last Friday, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said President Dutere had already instructed Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to tell Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locssin Jr. to send to the US a formal notification of VFA termination.
The very next day, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there is no such order from the President. This is fake news, he said, a direct criticism of the presidential spokesman. Executive Secretary Medialdea joined Lorenzana’s denial, saying, “None. Nada. Zilch. Awan. Wala. Anggapo.” No one could be more forceful than that.
Behind all this disputation over whether or not the President has indeed ordered an official termination of the VFA, is the concern aired by some officials against cutting off ties with the US. Senate President Vicente Sotto III has said scrapping the VFA might make the Philippines a “pushover” among the many nations with conflicting claims in the South China Sea.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, however, said that as long as the Philippines has its Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, it will remain assured of protection by a powerful ally. But then, Secretary Locsin also said before the Senate committee that abrogating the FVA would would render the Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US ”nothing but pieces of paper.”
If President Duterte is truly determined to end the VFA with US and he is formally directing Secretary Locsin to so inform the US government, it would be best if he says so himself, and not leave it to any spokesman or other official to make such a momentous announcement.