By Roy Mabasa
The absence of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the United States and the Philippines may put at risk the more than 300 civil-military engagements and exercises that the two countries are enjoying on an annual basis, a high-ranking U.S. State Department official said on Monday.
“Absent that (VFA) agreement, we do put at risk the different defenses, different services in the Philippines and the joint exercises… you do not want to see any of these exercises either reduced or disappear,” said U.S. State Assistant Secretary R. Clark Cooper during a teleconference with journalists.
He explained that from a critical operation standpoint, an agreement such as VFA is important to ensure that exercises such as Balikatan, the port calls, and the likes can take place “unimpeded.”
“Putting at risk, I don’t think anyone in the government of the Philippines would want to put at risk the numerous engagements,” Cooper said.
“With the Philippines, it’s specific to why the VFA is important. On an annual basis, the U.S. has about 300 engagements and exercises that we conduct bilaterally with the Philippines. This is why from a critical operation standpoint the necessity to have some sort of agreement to ensure these exercises can take place unimpeded. What’s the risk without the VFA? Without the VFA, it puts at risk things like these engagements, like these exercises,” he said.
Cooper believes that despite all the comments and statements about the abrogation of the VFA, both Manila and Washington would be able to discuss the issue when they sit down next month in a “tentatively planned bilateral strategic dialogue.”
“There’s an opportunity in March where both governments are looking at a bilateral strategic dialogue coming in the near future. From a broad perspective, while there had been certainly comments made, statements made there has not been a decision,” the U.S. official said.
On Monday, President Duterte rebuffed U.S. President Donald J. Trump and other officials for “trying to save” the VFA from being scrapped.
In a speech before local chief executives, Duterte maintained that he wants the VFA abrogated and chided the Americans for being “disrespectful” by interfering in the country’s affairs.