Philippines, US envoys working on new defense pact
“We are now in the process of trying to find ways and means to be able to see how we can either come up with something similar, perhaps, again, still following the President’s thinking about the sovereignty issue,” Romualdez said at the forum organized by Stratbase-ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi).
STAR/ File
Philippines, US envoys working on new defense pact
Helen Flores (The Philippine Star) - February 29, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — After President Duterte’s unilateral abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, there are efforts by his administration to craft a replacement, Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said at a forum yesterday.

“We are now in the process of trying to find ways and means to be able to see how we can either come up with something similar, perhaps, again, still following the President’s thinking about the sovereignty issue,” Romualdez said at the forum organized by Stratbase-ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi).

He said he and his counterpart, US Ambassador Sung Kim, who is currently in the US, are studying the possibility of using the Philippines’ visiting forces agreements with Japan and Australia as template for a new deal with the US.

“The Japan SOFA (status of forces agreement) is one of those recommended for study and also I think we have SOVFA (status of visiting forces agreement) with Australia. These are the two existing agreements with other countries,” Romualdez said.

He said the proposal he is working on with Kim would be an option for the President to consider. He said the military will present the proposed agreement to Duterte.

“But again the bottom line always falls on sovereignty and that is the reason why it is a very ticklish and very sensitive issue for both our countries in discussing what we want to do in moving forward,” Romualdez said.

He added that Pentagon officials are “extremely concerned” about what would happen after the VFA abrogation. The envoy also expressed doubts that Duterte would scrap the MDT.

Duterte ordered the termination of the VFA following the cancellation of the visa of one of his closest allies, Sen. Ronaldo dela Rosa, who led his controversial drug war during the latter’s stint as chief of the Philippine National Police.

At Malacañang, however, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said crafting a new VFA-like deal, as revealed by Romualdez, was “just recommendatory.”

“The President will not change his mind,” Panelo said in Filipino.

Last Wednesday, Duterte said the Philippines should be ready to stand on its own in its fight against terrorism, insurgency and in defending its territory, otherwise “it does not have business being a Republic.”

It was at this point that Duterte argued that the Philippines may have to choose between becoming a territory of the US or a province of China if it would continue to rely on other countries to defend its territory.

Duterte insisted the country has no need for the US, citing an assurance from the Philippine military that it could very well protect the Philippines from possible attacks.

But Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the President was merely stressing his independent foreign policy when he issued such strong statements again against the US.

“Basically, that’s the message, the President has been consistent that we pursue an independent foreign policy where we are friends to anybody, and enemies to none. I think when the President gave that statement, all I am saying is that, we cannot side with one or the other,” Nograles said.

“We are independent and we can’t be tied to anyone,” he added.

MDT, EDCA next target

At the same forum, retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio said that after scrapping the VFA, Duterte’s next target is the termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

“So the next target of the President, I believe, is to terminate the MDT and EDCA. Secretary (Salvador) Panelo already intimated this. He said to be consistent with his stand then all treaties must go,” Carpio said.

“We have to absorb this because that is in the mindset of the President,” he said.

Should the Supreme Court (SC) rule that the President alone can scrap a treaty, then the abrogation of the MDT and EDCA is likely to follow, Carpio said.

“If the SC will rule that the President acting alone can terminate a treaty, then the MDT is a treaty, it can be terminated. EDCA is not even a treaty, it’s just an executive agreement, he can terminate it without any… there’s no question about it,” he said.

Signed in 1998, the VFA allows the entry of American troops, exempting them from passport and visa regulations so they can participate in joint military drills in the Philippines.

The MDT states that each country would come to the defense of the other in case of an attack by a foreign country, while EDCA allows the US military to maintain barracks and weapons storage structures inside five Philippine military camps.

Senators are expected to file a petition before the SC next week to question Duterte’s termination of the VFA without the Senate’s concurrence.

Under the Constitution, the Senate’s approval is needed before a treaty can be enacted into a law.

However, there is no provision in the Constitution requiring Senate’s concurrence for an agreement to be officially cancelled.

Carpio also belied Duterte’s latest remark that the Philippines could choose to be a US territory or a province of China if it cannot be self-reliant.

“It’s not true that we should be either a province of China or a US territory. We can have alliances. Under the UN (United Nations) charter, collective self-defense is allowed,” he said.

“We can enter into alliances to defend our country against China, which is actually occupying and invading our territory in the West Philippine Sea, invading our maritime zones. The only ally that we can hope to deter China is of course the US, but the President has decided to terminate (the VFA) knowing it would make the MDT and EDCA useless,” Carpio said.

 ‘National tragedy’

 Former foreign affairs secretary and Stratbase-ADR Institute chairman Albert del Rosario said the Duterte administration’s handling of the country’s territorial claim has become a “national tragedy.”

“What is unfolding before us is a national tragedy which should be resisted. As a democratic and republican country, we do not believe that one man alone can make this damaging choice for our people,” Del Rosario said.

While admitting that the VFA was an “imperfect” agreement, Del Rosario said its termination would interrupt the benefits of the 1951 MDT with regard to the joint training and exercises, the pursuit of modernization, achieving interoperability, providing assistance during natural calamities and being effective partners in counterterrorism.

“This shift in foreign policy of casting aside a reliable ally in favor of an aggressive northern neighbor that wants to deprive us our land and seas is incomprehensible and harmful to our country and our people,” he said.

“Terminating the VFA would serve to actualize our pivot towards China against the strong and vehement objections of our people,” he said.

Del Rosario cited the US role in providing relief and rescue in the aftermath of super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013.

“The US relief response during the Yolanda disaster was made possible by the VFA. Other countries wanted to immediately respond but were constrained by lack of legal arrangements for their troops to enter the Philippines,” he said.

“We must reject the notion that maintaining the Philippines-US alliance is subservience to the US. In the international community, countries must forge alliances to protect their own interests,” he said. –  Christina Mendez

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