Revisiting the VFA
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2020 - 12:00am

Sen. Ronald dela Rosa says he’s touched that his boss President Duterte seems to love him so much the Philippine government is about to scrap an international treaty just because the United States has canceled the senator’s visa.

Surely Bato dela Rosa also suspects that the reason goes deeper than this.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said on Monday, in response to criticisms about the administration’s whimsical foreign policy, that the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa was merely the last straw in a string of actions taken by US officials that Duterte found offensive.

As foreign governments already know, Duterte is sensitive about his war on drugs. Dela Rosa, as the first Philippine National Police chief of this administration, had supervised the most brutal phase of the campaign, from Oplan Tokhang to Double Barrel.

As benign as Dela Rosa may appear, with his public weeping and handwringing over PNP abuses, he ran the bloody war on drugs with zeal – until the execution of teenagers by cops compelled a recalibration of the campaign and the turnover of the lead role to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Any accounting of the abuses during that first phase would inevitably include Dela Rosa.

*      *      *

Duterte appreciates the obedience and loyalty of those who have waged his war the way he wants it. And he has repeatedly reassured his minions that he is taking ultimate responsibility for his approach to the drug menace. He’s got their back; he would not allow them to suffer for it, he has said. If ever, he’s the one going to jail, not them.

Although no reason has been given for the cancellation of the US visa, another police general (unnamed) with involvement in the drug war is in the same boat, Dela Rosa says. So they see the anti-drug campaign as the reason.

It’s tantamount to a punishment for carrying out Duterte’s order, and he’s offended.

Considering how Filipinos typically regard the US, this kind of penalty can discourage PNP officers from waging the war on drugs in the manner that Duterte wants.

Coming on the heels of the US ban on Philippine officials behind the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima, Duterte feels that Washington is interfering in the way he’s running the country.

In retaliation, he’s considering terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – effectively barring US troops from engaging in military activities in the Philippines.

*      *      *

At this point, this is still a threat. The Cabinet will discuss this Friday the implications of scrapping the VFA, which provides the rules governing visits of US military personnel in the Philippines.

It must be emphasized that Duterte is not calling for the abrogation of the two countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The VFA is a component of the MDT.

This is not the first time that the Philippines has considered scrapping the VFA, although what was sought in the past was a renegotiation to correct what was deemed to be a lack of reciprocity in the agreement.

The VFA is regarded in the Philippines as a treaty that required concurrence of the Senate; it is just an executive agreement in the US, which has VFAs with several other countries. It’s unclear if Senate approval is needed to cancel the VFA, which covers mainly US forces visiting the Philippines but not Filipino troops visiting the US.

Visiting US forces, for example, are exempted from Philippine visa requirements.

Custody of a US soldier arrested and facing trial for a crime committed in the Philippines “shall immediately reside with US military authorities, if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, who was convicted of raping a Filipina in Olongapo but cleared on appeal, was detained inside the US embassy compound. Fellow Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton is serving a six- to 12-year sentence for homicide at Camp Aguinaldo for the killing of transgender Jennifer Laude in Subic.

*      *      *

If Duterte cancels the VFA, it can still be restored by the next administration.

In the meantime, if it is scrapped or renegotiated, US troops can’t come here for the annual joint exercises with the AFP. They might not be allowed to approach with their aircraft carriers and fly in again with their Ospreys for emergency relief in hard-to-reach isolated places in case of another Super Typhoon Yolanda. They can’t provide surveillance assistance to the AFP for counterterrorism and monitoring of the West Philippine Sea – which may not be a bad idea for this China-loving administration.

The Philippines has strategic importance for those who want to project power in the South China Sea. But the US has military bases in Japan and South Korea and has arrangements with Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand for American troop visits. Security ties with its old foe Vietnam are also strengthening.

The problem is if the Philippines decides to replace the US with China as defense partner. This scenario, however, is unlikely at this point, considering Filipinos’ below-zero trust rating of China in survey after survey (with the US followed by Japan consistently ranked as the most trusted). And no amount of cajoling or cussing by Duterte will make the AFP and Philippine Coast Guard enamored with their Chinese counterparts.

The Philippines also has a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia, which has reciprocity and is treated by Canberra as a treaty. But our defense cooperation with the Aussies is nowhere on the scale of what we have with the Americans.

It might be better for President Duterte to discuss his complaints about Dela Rosa’s visa and De Lima’s US fans directly with his US counterpart Donald Trump. Duterte raised the West Philippine Sea issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping; surely he can discuss his beefs against the US government with another leader he likes, Trump.

Even Dela Rosa is urging Duterte to attend the upcoming US summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, scheduled this March in Las Vegas.

Trump can use the distraction from his impeachment trial, and Duterte can remind Washington that the Philippines stopped being a US colony in 1946.

There need not be rancor in that kind of candid heart-to-heart talk between friends.

DUTERTE VFA
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