SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 17, 2020 - 12:00am

Oh well, there goes the alliance.

With that reaction of US President Donald Trump to President Duterte’s abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, there’s only the slimmest chance that the VFA can still be salvaged even with a renegotiation.

You no longer want US troops? Fine, thank you, it’s money saved for US taxpayers. Trump can be as much of a motormouth as Duterte, and just as disdainful. That must have been a calculated public putdown, after Duterte also publicly disclosed that he had turned down efforts by Trump and others to save the VFA.

After those candid statements from the famously undiplomatic Trump, I can believe presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo when he says Duterte’s “body language” indicates that the President is now considering the abrogation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and even the Mutual Defense Treaty itself.

Trump’s defense chief plus the head of US forces in the Indo-Pacific had a markedly different opinion from their commander-in-chief, warning about the adverse impact on regional security and counterterrorism if the VFA is terminated in 180 days.

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Those trying to save the VFA might clutch at these policy differences to say that an alliance – especially one as long-standing as this one – should transcend the personal opinions and tantrums of individuals with limited terms of office.

Philippine senators can then take their resolution to the Supreme Court to insist that abrogating a treaty needs Senate concurrence. Of course if Duterte is truly all for abrogation, every SC justice aiming for an appointment after retirement from the tribunal will simply go along with whatever he wants. So much for judicial independence.

Trump stressed that he remained on friendly terms with Duterte, and that he was aware that others in his government did not share his opinion. But Trump as president is the architect of US foreign policy, which is noteworthy for being inward-looking.

A segment of the US population clearly supports Trump’s “America first” policy. Some Americans who never liked him tell me glumly that they expect him to win reelection.

And Trump’s view on the VFA is not his alone. Before the exchange of intemperate remarks between the two leaders, I was told that there are hawks in Washington who have believed for some time now that they can do without the special alliance with the Philippines.

So it looks like Duterte is on his way to pursuing in earnest his “independent” foreign policy.

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As I have written in the past, countries with credible self-defense capability inevitably get more respect from friend and foe alike.

Minimum credible defense capability, however, does not come cheap. Countries that have other urgent funding priorities, like our middle-income country, find it useful to have allies that can foot part of the bill in the name of friendship based on shared core values and interests.

To douse any grumbling from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) over the loss of US military aid, Duterte will have to make substantial investments in defense – and, as in the SC, make way for more appointments of AFP officers to cushy civilian posts upon their retirement.

Ramping up defense spending means taking away funds that are urgently needed elsewhere, such as dealing with the novel coronavirus threat.

It will also further derail Duterte’s priority programs, whose funding has been iffy from the start. Among these are universal public health care, whose rollout will have to be done in only a few pilot areas precisely because of funding constraints, and universal free tertiary education. Rice farmers are waiting to be rescued from the impact of rice tariffication on their livelihoods.

Congress has cut a hefty chunk from the Calamity Fund for the year. For 2021, an election year, lawmakers aren’t going to take away funds for their pet projects to add to the national defense budget.

With the coronavirus disease or COVID-19 outbreak, Duterte should also live with the reality that his preferred ally won’t be rushing to fill the void left by Washington in assistance to the AFP.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, Chinese official development assistance and touted hefty investments in the Philippines were already slow in coming, with only the Chico Dam project onstream and the Kaliwa Dam mired in controversy. As for the slow trickle of Chinese ODA, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia attributes it to dollar cash flow problems in Beijing. China is in no position these days to project soft power.

Duterte can’t even count on his friend Xi Jinping, China’s president for life, helping to reassure Filipinos of Beijing’s benign intentions. Trump isn’t the only world leader who has rebuffed the Philippines. Duterte himself has narrated that he had raised the South China Sea issue and international arbitration results to Xi, and each time the Chinese leader would say that his country is prepared to go to war to defend its territorial claims.

So here we are, all by our lonesome, now needing to find resources for credible self-defense.

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It makes sense to be self-reliant in our national security requirements. Being part of the security umbrella of the world’s lone superpower made us complacent in building our self-defense capability.

Also, the VFA does have lopsided provisions that could benefit from a renegotiation.

What people are questioning are the reason for the abrogation and its timing. A common quip is that the VFA was lost – and possibly the defense alliance altogether – because Sen. Bato dela Rosa can no longer watch with his family the fights of Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas.

There is the persistent question about the wisdom of severing an alliance with the biggest source of foreign military aid and embracing as a new ally a state that has occupied areas over which the Philippines has sovereign rights, and that curtails the freedom of our fishermen to pursue their livelihood.

China tempers its maritime claims only when it is made to, when might is met my might, such as by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in the East China Sea.

With the fraying of our alliance with the US, we could strengthen defense cooperation with Japan. Even if Tokyo is willing to provide military assistance to the Philippines, however, Trump’s remarks should remind us that all countries’ foreign aid programs are bankrolled by their taxpayers. And not all those taxpayers relish sharing their hard-earned money with other countries.

Henceforth, we should always remember Trump’s comments in all our ODA-funded programs and activities.

If we want independence, we should be able to afford it.

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