Duterte rebuffs Trump on VFA

Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
Duterte rebuffs Trump on VFA
Duterte, who has been seeking closer ties with China while distancing himself from the US, said he was bent on terminating the VFA because of the “disrespectful” acts of Americans.
STAR / File

Senate OKs resolution for VFA

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte disclosed last night that United States President Donald Trump is “trying to save” the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries, but he has insisted on scrapping the two-decade-old VFA.

Duterte, who has been seeking closer ties with China while distancing himself from the US, said he was bent on terminating the VFA because of the “disrespectful” acts of Americans. He claimed the US had threatened to withhold aid to the Philippines if opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, who is in jail over drug-related charges, is not released.

“Now I’ll make it public, public official ako (I am a public official). Si Trump, pati yung others (Trump and the others) are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. Sabi ko, ayoko (I said, I don’t want to),” the President told a gathering of local government executives in Pasay City.

“One is that napakabastos ng Amerikano, talagang sobrang bastos. Yung mga CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), nakikinig ngayon, mga Amboy, sabihan niyo gobyerno niyo bastos kayo (Americans are very disrespectful. Really disrespectful. If the CIA is listening...tell your government, you are disrespectful). Imagine demanding the release of de Lima under threat that we will not receive the aid, that all persons who had a hand in the imprisonment of de Lima will no be allowed to go to the US?” he added.

“P***** i**, ano ba meron sa Amerika ganunin mo ’ko (What is in America that you have to treat me like that)?” he added.

It was not clear whether Duterte had spoken with Trump or if he relayed his view on the VFA through emissaries. The Philippine leader also did not mention anything about transmitting the VFA termination notice to the US government.

Duterte also denied endorsing extrajudicial killings, one of the issues tied to his controversial war on illegal drugs. The administration of former US president Barack Obama had criticized the campaign, drawing the ire of Duterte who responded by accusing Americans of interfering with the Philippines’ sovereignty.

“What I said was do not destroy my country because if you destroy my country, I will kill you,” Duterte said.

Duterte also disputed claims that the VFA has benefited the country. “We’ve been fighting the communists for 53 years. Kung nakatulong talaga ang America, p***** i** hanggang ngayon (If America really helped us, son of a b****, how come we are still dealing with it)?” the President said.

The President also said no accounting was done to determine whether Americans have brought nuclear weapons in the Philippines.

“The Philippine Navy was able to detect a US submarine sailing over Palawan. They did not seek permission,” he added.

Duterte likewise expressed optimism that China won’t harm the Philippines if “we also do not do something that will do harm to them.”

“It is a geopolitical issue, territorial. Maski papaliguin ko si Xi Jinping sa Palawan, wala sa akin iyan (Even if I ask Xi Jinping to take a bath in Palawan, that means nothing to me). They do not mean harm if we do not also do something that is harmful to them,” he said.

Also last night, the Senate adopted a resolution asking President Duterte to reconsider his plan to abrogate the VFA until the chamber has finished its review of the 20-year-old security pact.

Approved was Senate Resolution 312 jointly filed by Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the committee on national defense and security last Feb. 3 or 11 days after Duterte publicly threatened to terminate the VFA.

Duterte gave Washington 30 days or until Feb. 22 to restore the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa or face termination of the agreement.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who chairs the committee on foreign affairs that started a review of the VFA last Feb. 6, sponsored the measure on the floor for approval.

“In a developing country like ours, it is more beneficial and prudent to maintain if not gain allies than challenge the status quo. Our country is currently benefitting a lot from our allies, which include the US despite its geographical distance from the Philippines. We have had ups and downs in our relationship with the US just like with our other allies but our common interests outweigh our differences,” Sotto said.

“Sovereignty entails non-interference from other states. However, it doesn’t mean total isolation. International and diplomatic relations come into play to link our complex world. In these modern times, international relations is essential for many reasons. The promotion of successful trade policies between nations, cooperation with one another, advancement of culture and maintaining peace and order for stability,” he said.

Pimentel cited the testimony of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. before the committee last week during which the latter listed the benefits of the VFA to the country and the possible repercussions of cancelling the agreement.

Prior to the passage of the measure, Drilon put in an amendment to state there is also a pending resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that the chamber’s concurrence is needed before any treaty is abrogated.

Drilon also added a provision stating that the Senate in the past had ratified some 20 treaties that stipulated that their termination would also require permission of the Senate.

While recognizing Duterte’s prerogatives, senators are generally opposed to abrogating the VFA but are strongly pushing for its renegotiation to remove what is widely seen as lopsided provisions.

Among the manifest benefits cited by Locsin is that the VFA allows the US to provide “a total-package approach on defense articles that would be compatible with equipment, assets and systems that are already in place.”

“The dollar amount for security assistance, security cooperation programs obtained from the US for the period of 2016 to 2019 totals $554.55 million. This includes $267.75 million in foreign military financing for the procurement of defense articles for the same period,” Locsin said.

‘No consultation needed’

At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said President Duterte does not need to consult the Cabinet on his decision to abrogate the VFA.

“The President is the chief architect (of government policy), he does not need to consult (with his Cabinet). The President is good and he is a lawyer,” Panelo said.

“If he has doubts on certain areas, perhaps that’s the time that he consults,” he added. Panelo said the Cabinet fully supports Duterte’s position on the VFA.

The President announced his plan to terminate the VFA last Jan. 23, a day after Dela Rosa confirmed that his US visa had been cancelled. Dela Rosa’s being the chief enforcer of the administration’s bloody on drugs when he was police chief was widely believed to be the reason for the cancellation of his US visa.

Malacañang, however, claimed that the “intrusions” into the Philippine justice system by some US officials had also prompted Duterte to seek the scrapping of the VFA.

Other reasons cited by administration officials are the US Senate resolution condemning the alleged human rights violations under Duterte; the demand by some American senators to free detained opposition Sen. Leila de Lima and the US budget provision barring people behind De Lima’s detention from entering the US.

“They (US officials) committed successive acts and he felt they are assaulting our sovereignty. So he made the decision,” Panelo said.

No inconsistency?

Panelo also shrugged off claims that there are disagreements within the Cabinet over Duterte’s decision to walk out of the VFA.

Confusion arose after Panelo and Lorenzana issued seemingly conflicting statements on the VFA over the weekend. Panelo announced last Friday that the President had ordered Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to tell Locsin to transmit the termination notice to the US. The following day, Lorenzana said Locsin has not received such order, even dismissing the announcement as “fake news.” On the same day, Medialdea said he had not received Duterte’s directive to abrogate the VFA.

Administration critics including Vice President Leni Robredo have chided the administration for supposedly issuing inconsistent statements about the termination of the VFA.

Panelo insisted that the President really wanted Medialdea to tell Locsin to transmit the termination notice to the US government.

“His (Duterte) response was, the way I quoted him, ‘I will instruct ES (Executive Secretary) to tell Sec. Locsin to send the notice of termination to the US government.’ When I talked to him, it was a weekend,” the Palace spokesman said.

“So apparently, since there was no work (during the weekend), how can he relay the instruction?” he added.

Panelo said he did not know whether Medialdea has spoken to Locsin regarding the matter.

“But definitely, I asked him (Duterte), is your position unchanged? ‘Yes.’ I think that is more important,” he added.

Panelo said he, Lorenzana and Medialdea were conveying the same message except for the verb tenses.

“He (Lorenzana) did not say anything wrong. So the three of us are saying the same thing. I was using the future tense... I was just quoting him (Duterte). I will instruct ES. But it has not reached him... But it doesn’t mean that what I shared to you is false news,” Panelo said.

The presidential spokesman said he has already explained his statement to Lorenzana. “I told them from now on, the source of info on VFA is me,” he added.

“We don’t have to talk to each other, we, the Cabinet members, because the President is just relaying the same thing to us. I think the problem stemmed from the tenses. The future tense became past tense. Others reported that it has already been instructed, others said it is forthcoming, hence the confusion... But actually what is more important is the position of the President has not changed.”

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, meanwhile, said he fully supports Duterte’s plan to terminate the VFA, noting that Washington has “neglected” its “brother” in Asia in the face of abuse by some of the country’s neighbors.

“Today, if we do our research and review the facts, we can see that we have been neglected by the US. They have stood by blindly as we were abused by our neighbors and our territory snatched from us,” the Taguig congressman said, most likely referring to China.

Cayetano, whose mother is an American, also hinted that continuing the pact with the US “may even have the effect of derailing the attainment of our national goals and objectives.”

For another House leader and ally, however, scrapping the VFA could stymie the US capability to rush to the country’s assistance in time of emergencies.

“We are worried that without the VFA, the US military might not be able to rush in if we need their support in saving lives during volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, super typhoons and other natural disasters,” Deputy Speaker Johnny Pimentel warned.

“We’ve been consistently ranked among the top 10 countries in the world most prone to disasters. And we are a large archipelago,” the Surigao del Sur congressman said.

Pimentel pointed out that an entire US Navy battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS George Washington was able to rush military and humanitarian assistance during relief efforts for the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda in Eastern Visayas in November 2013.

“Because of the VFA, the US Navy group had no problem coming in straightaway and operating out of Leyte Gulf. They deployed aircraft for search and rescue missions and delivered relief supplies around the disaster zone,” Pimentel recalled.

“There’s no question the US Pacific Fleet has vastly superior logistical assets and a multitude of capabilities – from medical to communications to civil engineering – that will be helpful when needed,” Pimentel said. -Delon Porcalla



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