AFP eyes VFAs with China, Japan

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
AFP eyes VFAs with China, Japan
Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., in separate interviews with members of the Commission on Appointments and reporters at the Senate, maintained that the country’s security establishment will survive without the US military assistance tied with the VFA.
STAR / File

MANILA, Philippines — The Armed Forces of the Philippines will be pushing for military cooperation arrangements with other countries in the region, including China, in a bid to fill the possible security gaps with the termination of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States, the AFP chief said yesterday.

Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., in separate interviews with members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) and reporters at the Senate, maintained that the country’s security establishment will survive without the US military assistance tied with the VFA.

During the CA confirmation proceedings for Santos’ appointment, Sen. Francis Tolentino asked him about the possible effects of the termination of the VFA, particularly on the military’s disaster response capabilities, especially with warnings of the “Big One” earthquake hitting Metro Manila.

The senator cited recent natural disasters, such as Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, the Taal Volcano eruption last month and the Southern Leyte landslide in 2006, where US personnel participated in rescue and relief efforts.

US Marines were able to immediately respond to the Leyte landslide, for instance, because of ongoing joint Balikatan military exercises at the time, he noted.

“Will this (VFA abrogation) hamper our rescue and relief efforts if we don’t have an existing VFA agreement? The Armed Forces under your turf is expected to come up with a fill-gap plan on how to effectively respond, given that the US military will no longer be around,” Tolentino asked Santos.

“It has already been decided. What the AFP will do is to prepare for not having a VFA,” Santos said.

“Part of filling the gap is we will increase our bilateral exercises, agreement with other countries not only United Sates, the only SOVFA (Status of Visiting Forces Agreement) we have is Australia, so with the help of the Congress and the Senate we will push for the approval of (agreements with) the other countries like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and other allied countries,” he said.

On disaster response, he said the military is drafting plans to create a purpose-built brigade for calamities, similar to the engineering brigades of various units.

Santos told reporters after the CA confirmed his appointment that the AFP will increase its engagements with counterparts in the region to improve interoperability in military operations.

He cited South Korea, from which the Philippines has purchased lead-in fighter aircraft.

He said Japan and Indonesia are the other countries with which the Philippines might consider forging pacts similar to VFA or SOVFA.

Interestingly, Santos also mentioned the possibility of forging a military agreement with China, with which the Philippines is currently in a territorial dispute over the West Philippine Sea. China has put up several military installations over artificial islands it had built in the last few years in the West Philippine Sea.

“We have understandings on intelligence information exchange, exchange of training (with other countries), so we will now push for SOVFA and maritime exercises, same with the Air Force,” Santos said.

The general also said the AFP is willing to continue its joint military exercises with the US in the remaining 180 days left of the VFA’s effectivity. Under the 20-year-old pact, the termination will take effect 180 days from the date which either party gives notice in writing that it wants to abrogate the agreement.

However, nothing prevents the US from cancelling joint military activities with the Philippines scheduled for this year even before the 180 days are over, he said.

He said 318 joint military exercises, meetings and other activities have been scheduled for this year, and about half of them are likely not going to push through.

“Since we have served a notice so we will observe 180 days before the expiration and seek guidance from the secretary of national defense. So for those (exercises) that are ongoing we’ll push through, unless the other side cancels it, just like the Balikatan, will be covered up to before the 180 days,” Santos said.

Santos maintained there are no grumblings in the military over President Duterte’s efforts to cut security ties with the US, a long-standing ally.

“We will support the President’s decision. That’s a political decision. We’ll support it and we will live without the VFA,” he said.

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