VFA fully restored after Duterte meeting with Pentagon chief — Lorenzana

Alexis Romero, Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
VFA fully restored after Duterte meeting with Pentagon chief � Lorenzana
This handout photo taken on July 29, 2021 and received from the Philippines Presidential Photo Division (PPD) shows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) holding talks with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) during a courtesy call at Malacanang Palace in Manila.
Philippines' Presidential Photographers Division (PPD) / AFP

MANILA, Philippines (Update 2: 5:23 p.m.) — President Rodrigo Duterte decided to recall his termination of the decades-old Visiting Forces Agreement following his meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Thursday night, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Lorenzana made the announcement in a joint press briefing with Austin held Friday. 

“On behalf of the US, let me thank President Duterte for his decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement,” US Defense Secretary Austin said. 

The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement was announced in February 2020.

Among Duterte’s reasons for scrapping the military agreement was Sen. Ronald dela Rosa’s claim that his US Visa had been canceled. The alleged visa revocation was said to be over the former national police chief’s involvement in the “war on drugs” that the US has raised human rights concerns about.

The termination, however, has been suspended for three six-month periods since then. 

When asked by reporters to explain Duterte’s choice to keep the VFA after all, Lorenzana said “I don’t really know the reason behind the decision of the president.” 

“One thing is clear: The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Ambassador to the United States [Jose Romualdez have] been actually working for this to happen,” he said. 

Duterte has often lashed out at the US, a longtime ally and former colonizer of the Philippines, saying during public addresses that the country must “pay” to keep the VFA in full force.

The president also touts an “independent foreign policy” that has been marked in large part by a pivot to China.  

Despite this seeming shift in relations, however, US military ties with the Philippines have remained mostly unchanged.

“In terms of what was stalled... actually nothing,” Austin said. “Because the president extended our ability to train and operate together, we were able to continue to train and do a number of things.”

Strategic core interests

Malacañang said President Duterte's decision was in line with upholding the Philippines' strategic core interests.

"PRRD’s (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) decision to recall the abrogation of VFA is based on upholding the Philippines' strategic core interests, the clear definition of Philippines-US alliance as one between sovereign equals, and clarity of US position on its obligations and commitments under MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty)," presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.

"The Philippines will, however, continue to engage other countries for partnerships that work, based on our core national interests," he added.

Signed in 1998, the VFA allows Filipino and American soldiers to conduct joint military exercises to improve their defense and disaster response capabilities. It is an offshoot of the MDT, which was signed by the Philippines and the US in 1951.

The Philippines has had a bumpy relationship with the US since Duterte assumed office in 2016. During his first year in office, Duterte announced the Philippines' "separation" from the US after then American president Barack Obama criticized the deaths tied to his drug war. Officials have clarified that Duterte was merely emphasizing the need to uphold an independent foreign policy and to engage with non-traditional allies.

Last month, Duterte said he would only talk about the VFA if the US explains why it did not compel Chinese ships to leave the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal - a traditional fishing ground off the province of Zambales - during a standoff in 2012. The US brokered the deal requiring the Philippines and China to withdraw their ships from the shoal. Beijing did not pull out its vessels, allowing it to seize control of the area.

Stronger ties

During their meeting last Thursday, Duterte and Austin had an "open and frank discussion" on the status and future direction of Philippines-US engagement, according to a Malacañang statement.

"They agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments," the statement read.

The two countries are commemorating the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic ties and the 70th anniversary of the MDT this year.

Malacañang said Duterte thanked the US for its assistance in the Philippines' fight against COVID-19. The president noted that the Philippines is among the beneficiaries of the COVAX facility, where the US is the largest contributor. The Philippines recently received more than three million doses of COVID-19 jabs under the World Health Organization-led facility.

"Secretary Austin, for his part, stated that he has great respect for the Filipino people and that the U.S. wants a strong relationship with the Philippines as an equal sovereign partner," the Palace statement said.

Austin also relayed US President Joe Biden’s greetings to Duterte, who then conveyed his well wishes for his US counterpart.

The courtesy call, held upon the request of the US Embassy, lasted for 75 minutes, the first to be made by a cabinet secretary of the Biden administration.

Austin is in Manila from July 29 to 30 for an official visit. He was also scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. 

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