VFA: It’s not the be-all and end-all
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2020 - 12:00am

With the order of President Duterte to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States, along with the reaction of President Trump who said that he is “fine” with the decision and that the US could even “save a lot of money,” it seems clear that after two decades, the VFA is finally coming to a close. Ratified in 1999, the VFA provided guidelines and procedures for US troops in the Philippines, and also paved the way for joint military exercises known as “Balikatan” between American and Filipino soldiers.

The VFA is not the be-all and end-all. Let’s remember that in 1991 – the Philippine Senate voted against the retention of US military bases, leading to the closure of the Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base. Despite many complaints and apprehensions from locals – with some 20,000 Filipinos employed in Subic Naval Base while commercial establishments generated a lot of business from the presence of American soldiers and civilians working around the bases – we survived. 

Our relationship with the United States continued on many aspects which included trade and economic cooperation. Our people-to-people ties also flourished and became deeper and stronger, with close to five million Filipino-Americans now working and living in the US. Despite the closure of the bases, the alliance between the Philippines and the US was kept in place especially with the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Then in 1999, the VFA was ratified by the Philippine Senate, while the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was signed in 2014.

The reaction of some people over the termination of the VFA is understandable since Filipinos are so used to the special kind of relationship we have with the United States. But already, there are those who are blowing this out of proportion and making it appear as if an invasion by another nation will happen once the termination takes effect 180 days after receipt of the notice by the US government.  I am certain our military alliance will remain intact.

I will not go into the contrasting arguments regarding the termination of the VFA or delve into which perspective has more weight. What we should focus on right now is how to move forward and think of other ways to continue our special friendship with the United States under terms and conditions that are equally and mutually beneficial. 

We will continue to pursue other areas of cooperation especially on the economic front, particularly since the United States is our third biggest trading partner, our biggest export market and our fourth largest import source. In fact, the Philippines currently enjoys a trade surplus with the United States, which is also our fifth largest source of investments and the third biggest source of tourists with over one million US visitors in 2018. 

On the security aspect, it is up to both the US and Philippine militaries to come up with a program or a different level of engagement that would also address mutual security concerns such as extremism, drug trafficking and other transnational crimes.  

What is clear for now however is that there will be no new Visiting Forces Agreement with any other country, as expressed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin. 

“No more VFA’s even with other countries. We stand by our own guns by buying our own with a defense budget commensurate to the threats to our sovereignty,” Secretary Locsin said. 

The only thing that is permanent in this world is change. This is a dynamic world we live in, with a lot of things evolving and changing – we hope for the better. Let’s not forget that many decades ago, the US was locked in a war with Vietnam that lasted for two decades that cost the US over $140 billion and resulted in the death of more than 58,000 Americans, two million Vietnamese civilians and over one million soldiers from North and South Vietnam. Today, the economic and military ties between Vietnam and the US continue to grow stronger and deeper.

The same thing also happened with the Philippines and Japan that were once bitter enemies during World War II. In the last 60 years, the relationship between the two nations has dramatically transformed, with President Duterte describing Japan as “a friend closer than a brother… a friend unlike any other.”

There is no doubt that new challenges will come along the way, but we will continue to do our job in Washington. I have to say that our work was made easier having US Ambassador Sung Kim as my counterpart. He has certainly done a great job, having developed a good personal relationship with President Duterte. But while we are sad to see Ambassador Kim go, I am ready to work with the new US Ambassador to the Philippines – whoever he or she may be.  

We are ready to move forward with renewed engagements with members of the US Congress as well as the White House and all stakeholders. And as we look for ways to cooperate on the many aspects of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines – we should remember and bear in mind the words of President Manuel Quezon:

“We hope for the best. We shall promote friendly relations with other nations and be mindful of their rights. We shall endeavor to protect and defend our national integrity and independence to the limit of our means... We cannot falter in the attainment of our long-cherished Ideal. We must secure a place, however modest, in the concert of free nations.”

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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