US defense chief visiting Philippines for talks with senior officials — Pentagon

US defense chief visiting Philippines for talks with senior officials â Pentagon
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin delivers remarks at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Global Emerging Technology Summit on July 13, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

MANILA, Philippines — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III will visit the Philippines to reaffirm defense ties and bilateral relations between the two countries, the Pentagon said Tuesday. 

This comes hours after President Rodrigo Duterte in a prerecorded address aired Monday night said that the extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement, the termination of which was put on hold for another six months in June, is still "on the table."

The president has threatened to go ahead with junking the decades-old agreement unless the US sends more vaccines or pays the Philippines for the use of facilities.

"I just want to...speak or communicate or I just want to talk to some people in Washington, be it from the Office of the President or the State Department or the Defense Department," Duterte said partially in Filipino. 

"Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III departs on a trip Friday, July 23 to visit Alaska, Singapore, Hanoi and Manila," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a statement. "Throughout his trip, Secretary Austin will meet with key leaders to reaffirm defense relationships and conduct bilateral meetings with senior officials." 

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. in June said Duterte was still studying the defense agreement with the country's longtime ally and former colonizer. 

Last week, Locsin welcomed the US' open support of the 2016 arbitral ruling on the South China Sea as well as the reaffirmation of its commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty on which the VFA is premised. 

"Secretary Austin’s visit will demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration places on Southeast Asia and on ASEAN as an essential part of the Indo-Pacific’s architecture," the Pentagon also said.

"This trip will underscore the enduring US commitment to the region, and our interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region and promoting ASEAN centrality." 

Duterte in February 2020 instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs to inform the US of the termination of the VFA over, among other issues, supposed US meddling in domestic affairs like the human rights situation in the country. Activist groups have long assailed the agreement for being lopsided and for putting Filipinos in danger.

— Bella Perez-Rubio 

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