According to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, Duterte is serious in terminating the agreement due to the US government’s cancellation of the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, under whose term as Philippine National Police chief “Oplan Tokhang” was launched.
Yancy Lim/Presidential Photos, File
Philippines starts process of VFA termination
Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) - January 25, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Taking a cue from President Duterte, the foreign affairs department has set the ball rolling for the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States.

According to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, Duterte is serious in terminating the agreement due to the US government’s cancellation of the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, under whose term as Philippine National Police (PNP) chief “Oplan Tokhang” was launched.

In an interview yesterday at Malacañang, Panelo said he had asked Duterte on Thursday night when the process of termination would start. Duterte replied, “Tonight.”

“So I relayed it to (Foreign Affairs) Secretary (Teodoro) Locsin,” Panelo said. “The process of starting it has commenced, or will commence today.”

Panelo quoted Locsin as having designated his vice chair in the VFA panel, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, to start looking at the termination process and how the government would go about it.

Locsin chairs the Presidential Commission on VFA.

Dela Rosa said the US embassy did not provide any explanation on why his visa was cancelled. However, he believes it “might be related” to allegations of extrajudicial killings under his watch as PNP chief from 2016 to 2018.

The cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa is one of the reasons why the President blew his top anew on Thursday, Panelo said. “The President feels that we cannot sit down and just watch idly,” he continued.

Panelo maintained that the US or any other government cannot impose on a sovereign nation like the Philippines. “They cannot dictate at us or bully us into releasing a citizen of this country who is lawfully detained,” he said, referring to the provisions of the resolution that calls for the release of Sen. Leila de Lima.

“When they introduced that amendment, (that is) tantamount – to our mind – as disrespect,” he added.

When he discussed the matter with the President in Leyte the other night, Panelo said the President “was authoritative, serious. He was assertive.”

“They’ve been intruding into our domestic affairs, bullying us into submission. We cannot allow that. Meanwhile, they’re having privileges here and they’re treating us this way,” he added.

On Thursday, Duterte said he would order the termination of the VFA between the two countries unless the US government corrects its decision to invalidate the visa of Dela Rosa, whose nickname is Bato. The President has given the US due notice for a month.

Duterte’s stance came even as US President Trump gave a standing invitation for Duterte to visit the United States. Trump extended similar invitations to other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, for a special summit in Las Vegas, Nevada this March.

“What he said, he’s not going. For many reasons. Which I already stated earlier. And the other reason was the cancellation of Senator Bato’s visa. So, that added to the other factors,” Panelo said yesterday.

Duterte has not been keen on going to the US – which he also intimated during an interview with the Russian government-funded television network RT (formerly Russia Today) last Tuesday.

The President remains affected by how he was treated during the term of US President Barack Obama, under whose  administration the Duterte government’s drug war started to be attacked for alleged human rights violations.

Two theories

Panelo said his office is looking at two theories in handling the termination of the VFA, since it is considered as a treaty in the Philippines because ratified by the Senate, yet it is just an executive agreement in the United States.

“There are two theories, and it is not been settled yet. Under the Constitution, the ratification of a treaty requires the concurrence of the Senate. That is why this VFA, considered to be a treaty, has the votes of the Senate. But the US considers this as an executive agreement. So, the theory is, if it is an executive agreement, you can terminate it,” he said.

“Second theory is, other lawyers are saying, it goes without saying since the Senate is required for its enforcement, so you still need them if you decide to terminate the VFA. That’s not settled yet,” he added.

Sought to describe the diplomatic relationship between the Philippines and the United States, Panelo expressed his opinion that it was not as warm as before. “It’s lukewarm,” he replied.

Panelo, however, was cautious when asked if this would be the last straw that would lead to the cutting of ties between the two countries. The US is the Philippines’ longstanding defense ally.

“I don’t know about that. I will not tread on that,” Panelo said.

As a result of the latest developments, US Ambassador Sung Kim has expressed his intention to have a meeting with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.

“From what I gather, the ambassador wanted to have the meeting with the executive secretary (regarding) this,” he said. “Either today or tomorrow, as long as they will meet… Exciting.”

‘A good move’

The Department of Justice (DOJ) yesterday started studying comprehensive measures on how to terminate the VFA.

“All I can say is that the DOJ has been tasked to study the proper procedure to terminate the VFA,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters tersely when asked for comment on the VFA issue. 

“We are doing it now,” he added. 

Also yesterday, Foreign Secretary Locsin instructed Defense Secretary Lorenzana to “start the process” of terminating the VFA.

“?@DFAPHL Leaving for Wash DC on unrelated matters. But called @dndphl Sec Lorenzana as Vice Chair – I am Chair of VFA – to start process of terminating USFVA (sic),” Locsin said in a post on Twitter.

“Step 1 calling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because on our side it is a treaty; on US side Executive Agreement,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Locsin praised President Duterte’s warning to scrap the VFA between the Philippines and the US following the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s US visa.

“Good move. Visas fall under US Justice Department in the Executive Branch. Either they’re serious about US-PH military alliance or not. They can have de Lima after her trial. In fact they can pass a law making her a US citizen and part of US military so she is covered by VFA,” Locsin said.

Lorenzana understood full well where Duterte was coming from.

“I can understand why PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) is peeved by the cancellation of Sen. Bato’s  visa because of alleged extrajudicial killings in connection with the drug war, most especially that Bato was specificially targeted,” the defense secretary said.

He added that following the President’s notice that he will terminate the VFA, the ball is now in America’s hands.

“Let’s see how they (US) react to the PRRD statement,” he said, while mum over the possible implications to the country’s defense and military sectors once the VFA is terminated.

The leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), likewise, is silent over the issue despite being the direct beneficiary of the VFA. Security officials said that once the VFA is cancelled it will have a direct impact on the military’s ongoing modernization program.

The US embassy, meanwhile, also has yet to issue an official statement over the matter.

‘Terminating VFA good but…’

Militant lawmakers yesterday supported the President’s plan to revoke the VFA, which they said had violated the country’s sovereignty in the first place.

But members of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives immediately qualified their support and said Duterte’s move should not be because of the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s US visa.

“President Duterte should make good his threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, and include the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, among others but it must be done as a means to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty, and not to avenge Bato,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said in a statement.

Signed in 1998, the VFA accorded legal status to thousands of US troops who were rotated in the country for regular military exercises and humanitarian assistance operations.

It replaced a previous long-standing agreement, which allowed US naval and air bases in the Philippines for decades.

The Philippines and the US conduct between one to two joint military exercises annually. – With Helen Flores Jaime Laude, Robertzon Ramirez, Edu Punay

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