By Roy Mabasa
The Philippine government has formally informed the United States about its termination of a two-decade military agreement.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who signed the Notice of Termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States on Monday, confirmed that the letter was received by the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Manila.
“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 the self-explanatory development,” Locsin said in a tweet.
The current Deputy Chief of Mission of the US embassy in Manila is John Law.
On the other hand, Heather Fabrikant, Press Attache of the US embassy in the Philippines, issued the following statement:
“The Department of Foreign Affairs informed us of the Philippines’ intent to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
“This is a serious step with significant implications for the US-Philippines alliance. We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests.
“Our two countries enjoy a warm relationship, deeply rooted in history. We remain committed to the friendship between our two peoples.”
The termination of the VFA, which governs the conduct of visiting US troops in the country, will take effect 180 days upon receipt by the US, according to Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.
President Duterte’s unilateral abrogation of the 21-year-old VFA reduced the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to a mere paper treaty as far as the US is concerned.
“Having said that, there’s no more intelligence information sharing in our fight against domestic and foreign terrorist acts, no more US military aid and financing accounting for a good 52 percent of what they extend to the whole Asia-Pacific region,” Senator Panfilo M, Lacson, chairman of the Senate National Defense and Security Committee, said.
“That may not include other intangible economic benefits and security from external threats in the West Philippine Sea (WPS),” Lacson pointed out.
“Like it or not, bad or good, nothing much can be done now but do a 180-day countdown upon receipt of the notice by Washington,” he added.
300 PH-US engagements at risk
Reacting to the Notice of Termination, a high-ranking US State Department official said the absence of a VFA between the US 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.
“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 US 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 US 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 US official said.
On Monday, President Duterte rebuffed US 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.
Independent defense posture
For now, Panelo said President Duterte prefers the country to depend on its resources in fortifying national defense and security.
“But the President said it’s about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country,” he added.
Citing information from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Panelo said the United Kingdom is among the possible countries interested in forging a defense agreement with the Philippines. He asserted that any future military agreements should be “based on fairness, mutual benefits to both agreeing nations.”
“Parang narinig ko kay Secretary Delfin Lorenzana na may mga countries na nag-o-offer and one of them is UK (I heard from Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that there are other countries that offered and one of them is UK),” Panelo said.
“But as the President said, it’s about time we rely on our own resources. We have to strengthen our own capability as a country relative to the defense of our land. Iyon ang pinakaano ni Presidente, mahirap iyong we keep on relying, lalo tayong humihina (The President said it’s hard that we keep on relying on others, we are just getting weaker),” he said. (With reports from Mario B. Casayuran and Genalyn D. Kabiling)