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Philippines, US meet this month on VFA differences
The Philippines in November suspended for the second time President Duterte’s unilateral decision to terminate the VFA, to allow it to work with Washington on a long-term pact.
Presidential photo/Alfred Frias

Philippines, US meet this month on VFA differences

Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines and the United States will meet this month to iron out differences over the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), amid renewed regional concerns over China’s assertive maritime agenda.

The Philippines in November suspended for the second time President Duterte’s unilateral decision to terminate the VFA, to allow it to work with Washington on a long-term pact.

“I am narrowing down the issues and soon we will meet...and iron out whatever differences we have,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told ANC yesterday, adding a meeting was likely in the last week of February.

He declined to elaborate on the terms of a potential agreement.

Duterte notified Washington in February last year that he was cancelling the deal, outraged that Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who led his notorious war on drugs, was denied a US visa.

The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. Experts say without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.

The US embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month stressed the importance of the MDT should Manila come under attack in the South China Sea.

Blinken’s comments came as the Philippines protested China’s new law allowing its coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels in what it sees as its territory, describing it as a “threat of war.”

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, which is a major trade route.

Locsin said he would continue to press for a maritime code of conduct that “will never exclude” the United States, to ensure the regional balance of power.

Separately, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would talk to allies about China’s law and concern that a miscalculation could lead to open conflict.

He also told CNN Philippines that the United States had not consulted the Philippines or other claimants before its patrols.

“But the first thing I insist on is this: here is the non-negotiable, the Code of Conduct will never exclude a Western Power, well, the United States, from the area because that is part of my national friends, that’s the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Locsin said in an interview on ANC’s “Headstart.”

“With that, you have the assurance of a balance of power in the region and we negotiate how we’re gonna deal with each other in this or that event, accident, and so on,” he said.

The US has assured the Philippines of its continued support in the South China Sea issue, including defending its Asian ally in the event of armed attack.

ASEAN and China have been holding talks for years to craft a Code of Conduct (CoC) for dealing with issues in the South China Sea, to prevent tension from escalating into armed hostilities.

The foreign affairs chief said he wants to reduce the “long, levitical” draft of the CoC to about eight pages.

“And then we are going to start reading on that and I want that done before we step down,” he added.

The Philippines urged ASEAN and China to return to the negotiating table to resume negotiations for a CoC in the South China Sea and go down to “sincere” and “serious” work.

When asked if he was seeing a problem with ASEAN over finalizing a CoC, Locsin said there is “dribbling” going on in the regional bloc.

“So far they’re not exactly pushing it,” Locsin said. ”But we are not dropping the ball, nobody’s dropping the ball, but there’s dribbling going on, and I’m tired of the dribbling.”

“I don’t know what will push them but I certainly will not, I will not conceal the fact that it was our side that dribbled it, ASEAN side. I don’t do cover-ups,” he said.

He also said “there will be more than just a protest” in the event of a hostile situation in the South China Sea.

“So far, there is no incident. If there is an incident, I can assure you it will be more than just a protest,” Locsin said.

On retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio’s call for the Philippines and other Southeast Asian claimants to raise the new Chinese coast guard law before a UN tribunal, Locsin said: “Everybody wants to enter a show. Everybody wants to show off with the United Nations.”

He said raising the coast guard law issue before the UN might reopen the arbitral award.

“I’m not gonna throw our victory into that and let them decide. Well, I don’t want to say anything but you already won but you want to re-litigate? There must be something really wrong with you,” he said, citing a scenario if Manila turns again to the UN for help. – Michael Punongbayan

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