FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2020 - 12:00am

It has happened. On the President’s orders, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin informed US officials that the Philippines is terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

According to the terms of the agreement, the termination takes effect 180 days after notice is served. The clock has begun ticking.

The US insisted on the VFA for its own comfort. Other American allies have adopted the same agreement. Only in the Philippines has this agreement provoked much political controversy.

Within the framework of this agreement, US troops could enter the country for joint exercises without going through immigrations formalities. They could bring the equipment to be used for such exercises without customs formalities. The American troops participating in joint exercise remain under US jurisdiction. As we saw in the case of the US marine who killed a Filipino transgender, the soldier remains in US custody even after Philippine courts established his guilt.

The VFA has been the target of leftist-nationalist agitation over the years since we agreed to it in 1999. The fact that US troops remain under American jurisdiction while in the country is considered a violation of our sovereignty.

With the termination of the VFA, Senator Panfilo Lacson observed, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) now becomes a mere paper treaty. This is because it has become unlikely that joint military exercises will likely cease.

Washington does not take repudiations lightly. Recall that after the extension of the bases agreement was rejected in the Senate 30 years ago, we largely fell off the American radar screen. Military assistance was reduced to a trickle, forcing us to spend more for our defense needs.

Within the framework of the MDT, American and Filipino militaries engage in about 300 joint activities each year. These joint activities include intelligence sharing and tactical exercises. During these activities, Filipino soldiers learn about new weaponry and advanced war doctrines.

US military support proved valuable in the battle against terrorist groups. The notorious terrorist Abu Sabaya was neutralized with support from US electronic intelligence. When Marawi was besieged, the US provided surveillance support to Filipino soldiers.

The Philippine military establishment values the MDT highly. Before we were able to put up our own radar capabilities and launched our own satellite, we depended on the Americans for surveillance of our extensive territorial waters. We were able to purchase second-hand American combat equipment, including ships for our navy and planes for our air force.

Before we kicked out the American bases, no one messed with our territorial seas. The US Navy patrolled our waters for us. The advanced combat assets of the US Air Force were a powerful deterrent force.

Without the permanent presence of the US bases, we relied on the symbolic effects of joint military drills and war games to remind our neighbors of our “special relationship” with the world’s only superpower. The Philippine military touted these exercises as a means to make up for our inferior war assets.

To be sure, the Filipino defense establishment prefers the VFA be retained. In a recent Senate hearing, both the Defense Secretary and the Foreign Affairs Secretary enumerated the many benefits we derive from the MDT and the VFA.

Responding to President Duterte’s threat to terminate the VFA, the Senate scrambled to mitigate the drift of things. The chamber wanted to have a say on the matter.

Before the Senate could find its footing, however, President Duterte ordered the Foreign Affairs Secretary to notify the Americans of his decision. That was a forceful move, to say the least. Any effort the Senate may have planned was stopped in its tracks.

In the hours following our notification to the Americans about the termination, it seems the Senate had accepted the outcome. Not one senator put up any resistance to the President’s decision. The chamber, it appears, recognizes it did not have the political leverage to counter a highly popular chief executive.

Being the lawyer that he is, President Duterte understood that the VFA, being a mere executive agreement, is not subject to Senate concurrence. The President stamped his much vaunted political will on the issue. No more discussion, no more quibbling on the issue will be tolerated.

The military establishment, to be sure, is not happy with this decision to terminate. But the soldiers have very well concealed whatever disappointment they nurse.  Their commander-in-chief has spoken.

For sure, our decision to unilaterally terminate the VFA will reverberate in Washington. We are not going to be an easy ally.

Donald Trump might have an easier time cajoling Kim Jong-un. Duterte is of a different species.

Some analysts have raised the possibility that the termination of the VFA signals a pivot toward China. That might be unwarranted extrapolation.

To be sure, the termination signals we will be a more independent player in a traditional alliance. At the very least, we will be a player willing to accept the costs of making a point.

The termination did not arouse the passions that might have been expected from a public that overwhelmingly trusts the US and distrusts China. The President has made his decision and the public seems willing to accept it as one that is probably best for our strategic interests.

This decision was not taken entirely out of whim or pique. It reflects the disenchantment over how poorly the US treated us all these years. While both of us value this alliance, the Philippines was always treated as junior partner – or cheap date.

Or mere pawn, if the nationalists are to be believed.

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