Pentagon chief sees VFA termination as 'wrong direction' for Philippines, region

Patricia Lourdes Viray - Philstar.com
Pentagon chief sees VFA termination as 'wrong direction' for Philippines, region
In this Nov. 19, 2019 photo, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper host a press conference during the latter's visit to Manila.
US DoD / Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines' decision to abrogate its Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States would be a wrong move, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.

Esper confirmed that Washington has received the Manila's notification of its intent to withdraw from the agreement.

"I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction as — as we both bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region are trying to say to the Chinese, 'You must obey the international rules of order. You must obey, you know, abide by international norms,'" Esper told reporters en route to Europe on Tuesday.

The transcript of the remarks is posted on the official website of the US Department of Defense.

"And as we try and, you know, bolster our presence and compete with them (China) in this era of great power competition, I think it's a move in the wrong direction..." he also said.

Past meetings with counterparts 'very good'

The Pentagon chief said the Philippines decision to terminate the VFA was "unfortunate", noting that he just visited the country in November to meet with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and other Philippines officials.

Esper described his previous meetings with his Philippine counterparts as "very good."

According to Esper, the US government has yet to digest the notice of the Philippines to end the defense pact as they have to work through policy and military aspects.

"And as we try and, you know, bolster our presence and compete with them in this era of great power competition, I think it's a move in the wrong direction for — for, again, for the longstanding relationship we've had with the Philippines for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries," Esper said.

As indicated in the VFA, the termination will take effect 180 days after the notice to the US has been issued.

In a phone briefing on Monday, a transcript of which was provided by the US Embassy, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper said that terminating the VFA would affect hundreds of "engagements and exercises" between the Philippine and American militaries.

"[T]he United States has about 300 engagements and exercises that we conduct bilaterally with the Philippines," he said.

"What’s at risk without a VFA?  Well, without a VFA, it puts at risk things like these engagements, like these exercises," he said, adding that there is "a recognized, broad value of not only maintaining our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will beget further procurements and interoperability between the U.S.-Philippine alliance, but the very practical application of a Visiting Forces Agreement that enables these activities like port calls, like engagements, like exercises."

Notice of termination sent on Tuesday

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo confirmed earlier this week that President Rodrigo Duterte has directed Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to instruct Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to send a notice of termination to the US government.

Locsin tweeted Tuesday that the Philippines' Deputy Chief of Mission to the US Embassy has received the notice of termination of the VFA.

"As a diplomatic courtesy there will be no further factual announcements following this self-explanatory development," Locsin said.

The US Embassy in Manila said Washington will remain committed to the friendship between the two countries amid the Philippines' intent to terminate the defense pact.

"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," the US Embassy said in a statement.






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