US seeks strong ties with PH as ‘equal sovereign partner,’ Pentagon chief tells Duterte

Published July 30, 2021, 12:07 AM

by Genalyn Kabiling

The Philippines and United States have agreed to bolster cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, illegal drugs and other transnational crimes, and promoting trade and investments.

President Rodrigo Duterte welcomes US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III with a fist bump during his courtesy call in Malacañang on July 29, 2021. (Malacañang)

The latest commitment was reached when President Duterte met with visiting United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III who relayed the US intent to forge stronger ties with the Philippines as a “equal sovereign partner.”

The Pentagon chief, who arrived in Manila Thursday for a two-day visit, paid a courtesy call on the Philippine leader in Malacañang Thursday, July 29.

Austin is the first member of US President Joe Biden’s cabinet to visit Southeast Asia this week. Before flying to Manila, he visited Vietnam and Singapore to revitalize US ties.

“President Duterte and Secretary Austin had an open and frank discussion on the status and future direction of the Philippines-U.S. engagement as the two countries commemorate this year the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and the 70th anniversary of the Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty,” the Palace said in a statement.

“They agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particular in the areas of pandemic response, combatting transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments,” it said.

Austin told Duterte that the United States “wants a strong relationship with the Philippines as an equal sovereign partner,” according to the Palace.

“Secretary Austin relayed President Joe Biden’s greetings to the President and the President conveyed his well wishes for his U.S. counterpart,” it said.

The Palace said Austin’s courtesy call on the President, that was requested by the US Embassy, lasted 75 minutes.

The visit of the US Defense chief comes as President Duterte has yet to decide on whether or not to keep the country’s visiting forces agreement (VFA) with the US.

The President earlier ordered the termination of the VFA, which spells out the guidelines and legal status of visiting American troops in the country, over concerns about its supposed unequal provisions. The planned abrogation of the military pact however has been suspended for more than a year now due to global challenges such as the pandemic.

When he delivered his State of the Nation Address Monday, July 26, Duterte voiced doubts that the US would come to the country’s aid in case it is under attack amid a territorial conflict with China. He said America has often declared it would not meddle in conflicts involving boundaries of countries.

Under the MDT forged between the Philippines and the United States in 1951, a country will defend the other nation in case it would be under external armed attack.

When he assumed office in 2016, the President pursued closer economic and security ties with China and Russia while moving away from its traditional ally the United States. Duterte previously aired grievances for the past US colonial rule of the country and unleashed profanity-laced tirade at America’s alleged meddling in domestic affairs.