‘Foreign policy is not exclusive to the President’

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
âForeign policy is not exclusive to the Presidentâ
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon , a former justice secretary, said Duterte’s latest decision to recall the termination of the VFA, “after much hemming and hawing, proves that foreign policy is a function that cannot be left alone to the President.”
Senate PRIB / Joseph Vidal

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte’s shifting stance on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) validated the position of the Senate that foreign policy – as affirmed by the Supreme Court (SC) – is a shared power and responsibility, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said yesterday.

Drilon, a former justice secretary, said Duterte’s latest decision to recall the termination of the VFA, “after much hemming and hawing, proves that foreign policy is a function that cannot be left alone to the President.”

“Foreign policy is not exclusive to the President. It is a shared power with the Senate. It cannot be left to the President alone since it involves policy issues, and Congress is the policymaking body in our system of government,” Drilon said in a statement.

After unilaterally terminating the VFA on Feb. 11, 2020, Duterte recalled his decision several times in June 2020, November 2020 and in June 2021 until he decided to retract the termination outright last week after meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Manila.

Entered into force in 1999, the VFA serves as the implementing agreement to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. It also provides the legal cover for the resumption of military exercises between the Philippines and US and defines the treatment of American troops and personnel visiting the country.

The senator said Duterte’s latest action comes on the heels of the SC landmark ruling involving the President’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute, wherein the high court affirmed the need for Senate’s concurrence in the withdrawal from treaties and international agreements.

In Pangilinan v Cayetano, the SC held: “The President cannot unilaterally withdraw from treaties that were entered into pursuant to the legislative intent manifested in prior laws, or subsequently affirmed by succeeding laws. Treaties where Senate concurrence for accession is expressly premised on the same concurrence for withdrawal likewise cannot be the subject of unilateral withdrawal.”

That termination of the VFA must be with Senate concurrence is an issue now pending in the SC, Drilon said.

In 2020, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Senators Richard Gordon and Panfilo Lacson asked the SC to render a decision declaring that the withdrawal from or termination of a treaty or international agreement requires the concurrence of the Senate.

Drilon said he sees this as renewed efforts to strengthen the bilateral relations and military alliance between the Philippines and the US, who he said have shared decades of deeper bilateral relationship and diplomatic ties that are anchored on trust, respect and understanding.

Through the VFA, the two countries were able to share information, surveillance and perform reconnaissance operations in the West Philippine Sea and Mindanao, he said.

The minority leader cited how the VFA has enabled the US to provide support to the Armed Forces in terms of capability building and acquisition of military equipment.

He said the Philippines has received approximately P34 billion in State Department military grant assistance since VFA took effect in 1999.

He also cited that because the VFA was in place, the US military, during disasters, was able to provide urgent needed and humanitarian relief assistance such as during Super Typhoon Yolanda.

Senators have welcomed the move to continue the implementation of the VFA, but sought “augmentations” in the country’s security pacts with the US especially with emerging non-traditional threats, including pandemics.

Lacson, who chairs the Senate committee on national defense and security, said he believes Duterte was “influenced by the interest of the country and our people.”

“Termination of the VFA would have done our country’s security situation more harm than good, especially at this time when incursions into our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea have become more aggressive and unabated,” he said.

He also mentioned the continuing threats of terrorism in the country.

Sen. Francis Tolentino, vice chairman of the foreign relations committee, said the decision would be a “correct move” if the retraction of the termination is coupled with the strengthening of the VFA, as both countries celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations amid the current tensions in the region.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who chairs the foreign relations committee, said if the VFA will have new terms then that is a new treaty which must be concurred in by the Senate.

“Since there is no announcement that there is a new VFA treaty then we assume that what has been continued is the existing VFA. Hence, it is as if everything the VFA is as it used to be,” Tolentino told reporters.

Non-traditional threats

Tolentino last week filed Senate Resolution 787 urging the executive branch to “augment” existing defense agreements with the US, including the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the storage of American military equipment and supplies in the country.

He said the US military bases previously provided the Philippines ready access to US equipment and assistance.

The bilateral arrangements between the two countries assured the security of the Philippines against external attack, allowed the Philippines and other friendly nations in Southeast Asia to pursue economic growth without disabling military expenditures, as well added stability to the West Philippine Sea, he said.

Now that the VFA has been restored, joint military exercises such as amphibious landing drills between Filipino and American soldiers can now resume, an administration lawmaker said yesterday.

“We would urge Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to propose the inclusion of joint amphibious landing drills on Pag-asa in the next Balikatan,” Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, chairman of the House strategic intelligence committee, said.

“While we must avoid escalating tensions, we should also develop the abilities of our combined forces to operate side by side and rapidly respond to a full range of events, including conflict in our waters,” he said.

Balikatan refers to the annual US-Philippine military training exercises that are meant to boost joint crisis-action planning and the interoperability of forces.

Located 480 kilometers northwest of Puerto Princesa City, Pag-asa belongs to the Kalayaan Island Group at the western section of the Spratly archipelago in the West Philippine Sea. – Delon Porcalla

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