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Lorenzana to US: We want to keep VFA
Defense Secretary Lorenzana also told his newly appointed US counterpart that the Philippines does not want any miscalculations or accidents in the South China Sea that may lead to a shooting war between the two giants.
STAR/File

Lorenzana to US: We want to keep VFA

Romina Cabrera (The Philippine Star) - February 12, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana yesterday said that military and defense officials are keen on continuing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which they see as an instrument that ensures the Philippines and the US can continue developing military interoperability and capability doctrines in support of the Mutual Defense Treaty.

“The final decision to push through with the termination or withdraw the notice rests on the President. We, at the defense department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue,” he said, noting that the Armed Forces of the Philippines can enhance capabilities by testing out and familiarizing themselves with new equipment from the US during joint exercises through the VFA, whose abrogation by President Duterte has twice been deferred.

Lorenzana also told his newly appointed US counterpart that the Philippines does not want any miscalculations or accidents in the South China Sea (SCS) that may lead to a shooting war between the two giants.

Lorenzana said the Philippines is avoiding conducting exercises in disputed territories within the SCS as this action may escalate the already heightened tensions in the area.

Both Lorenzana and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III reaffirmed their commitment during an introductory phone call earlier this week, discussing developments on both countries’ defense relations as well as the security situation in the West Philippine Sea and SCS.

“If a shooting war erupts, and I told Secretary Austin we don’t want anything miscalculations or accidents happening in South China Sea because we are right smack there in the center of conflict if it happens, (the Philippines) will be at the losing end,” he told ANC partly in Filipino.

It would be to the country’s best interest, he added, if it pursues a stable and peaceful situation in the SCS by not getting involved in any exercise that would alarm and raise tensions between claimants.

“That’s the reason why we did not want to participate. Firstly, (we do not want) to antagonize China because China is watching us here and a lot of things could be done to us by the Chinese government if they are antagonized,” he noted.

The defense chief also cited that two US Navy carrier groups are currently conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the SCS “without the Philippines’ knowledge.” He noted that the Duterte administration has been cordial with both the US and China to maintain peace and stability in the region as well as develop relationships, such as trade.

On the new Coast Guard law that Beijing passed recently, Lorenzana said he does not think that the Chinese government will apply its new law and fire at unarmed Filipino fishing boats, or even at the Philippine Coast Guard, as China knows that the country also has claims in the area.

“That is not downplaying, that is just stating the fact, I don’t think the Chinese will fire at unarmed vessels,” he claimed.

Hoping that the Code of Conduct in the SCS will be finished soon so rules in the disputed areas could be set, Lorenzana expressed his concern that navies of other nations might engage China in a shooting war, which may put the Philippine in a tight spot due to its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

VFA meeting starts

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted that the meeting between the Philippines and the US to ‘iron out’ differences and to come to an agreement over the Visiting Forces Agreement has started yesterday.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said both countries would have a working-level meeting to discuss bilateral defense and security cooperation as part of a regular and continuing engagement with the US on strengthening the alliance.

The Philippines sent the US on Feb. 11 last year a notice to terminate the VFA—an essential agreement in effectively implementing the MDT and which provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the country—but this was suspended twice with the US seeking a “longer” extension to allow negotiations to address important concerns on both sides.

The US has reaffirmed its commitment to the MDT and its “clear” application to armed attacks against the Philippines in the Pacific, including the South China Sea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the importance of the MDT between the Philippines and the US during a phone call with Locsin last month and the US rejection of China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.

For Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon, the Duterte administration should reconsider its move in terminating the VFA amid the warming relations between Manila and Washington under the new administration of President Joe Biden. – Pia Lee-Brago, Delon Porcalla,Elizabeth Marcelo

SOUTH CHINA SEA VFA
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