Making sense of the VFA termination
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2020 - 12:00am

By order of President Duterte, the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) should take effect in six months, unless the Supreme Court allows the Senate to have a say on the matter.

The President cited disrespect and infringement of national sovereignty as the reasons for terminating the VFA. In particular, America’s criticism of his war on drugs and the outright threat to withhold aid unless opposition Senator Leila de Lima is released from prison – both were seen by the President as meddling in internal affairs. The last straw was America’s move to cancel the visa of Presidential henchman, Bato de la Rosa.

It’s no secret that the President has had an axe to grind against America since his youth. The order to terminate the VFA is a manifestation of his long simmering contempt for Uncle Sam.

It’s been a week since the decision has been handed down and I am still trying to come to terms with it.

For those unaware, the termination of the VFA will cause the Philippine Navy, Army and Air Force to lose the opportunity to train and adopt American technologies in counter-terrorism, external defense and disaster response.  It will preclude the Philippines from accessing American intelligence and surveillance information. It will give America less reasons to extend grants of military hardware needed by the armed forces to modernize. All these, taken collectively, will make it more difficult for the Philippine military to carry out its mandate to protect and defend the Filipino people.

Moreover, the absence of America’s shadow over the Philippines gives China all but free reign to do as it pleases in the West Philippine Sea. With American presence in the region diminished, the regional balance of power skews to China’s favor. 

And since the VFA gives context to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, its termination could blunt the extent by which America commits to this treaty. This, I reckon, is the most significant loss.

As far as bilateral relations go, history has shown us that America never looks kindly at repudiations of treaties, pacts or agreements. Still fresh in our memories was how America pulled the plug on all aid and cooperation following our rejection of the Bases Agreement of 1991. With the termination of the VFA, we can expect a cooling-off of American support in the realms of trade, defense, diplomacy and immigration.

On the plus side,  well, the President made a strong statement that the Philippines will not be disrespected, taken for granted or treated like a cheap ally.

So is the plus side worth the consequences?  Yes, if you are driven by ego. The reality, however, is that the termination of the VFA effectively weakens our defenses against terrorist attacks and foreign threats as we move forward. It is an act we cannot take lightly since it puts our national security at risk.

The more prudent way to have addressed the issue is through dialogue and/or bringing the VFA back to the negotiation table for recalibration.

In this era of geopolitical uncertainty, we should be building more alliances, not severing ties on the back of vendettas.

Has America transgressed our sovereignty so badly that it merits the termination of the VFA? Has the relationship between our countries really been one-sided to America’s favor?

If there is any country that has infringed on Philippine sovereignty, it is China itself. With its nine-dash-line, a territorial demarcation dishonored by the United Nations, China has forcibly occupied swaths of territorial waters that have been legally and historically recognized as being part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ) of the Philippines.  This is as blatant a disregard of our sovereignty as it gets.

This is why it is ironic that President Duterte cited infringement of sovereignty as one of the reasons for terminating the VFA. True, America has overstepped its place by “interfering” on his war on drugs, but the degree in which it violated our sovereignty is by no means as grave as China’s acts.

As for Philippine American relations being one sided, I think we just have unrealistic expectations of America.

As a former colony and close ally, many believe that we are entitled to favored treatment. But this is not the case. Fact is, Vietnam receives more investments from American companies than we do. Thailand and Singapore receive just as much military aid as the Philippines. America excluded the Philippines from its intended free trade bloc called the Trans Pacific Partnership. Visa-free entry for tourists is not reciprocal. China and India enjoy a higher acceptance rate for inward immigration to the US. I could go on – suffice it to say that there is no longer anything “special” in our relationship. As far as America is concerned, the Philippines is like any other country for which it will jockey whatever advantage it can get. The reaction of President Trump when informed about the termination of the VFA said it all.

The only thing special about our relationship is close historical ties in which both sides benefitted. Nothing more.

But make no mistake, the real enemy, at this time, is China, not the US. No matter how Malacañang sings China’s virtues, the actions of their communist government show that they cannot be trusted. How can we trust them when, on one hand, they claim to respect our nationhood, yet invade, grab and militarize our territories by force. They profess a strong friendship yet threaten us with military retaliation if we enforce our victory in the Arbitration before the United Nations (UNCLOS). They promise investments in droves yet have invested only $198 million last year, a pittance compared to Singapore who invested five times as much. They promise to be government’s ally in its infrastructure program yet drag their feet in Official Development Assistance (project financing).

Malacañang assures us that China will not “harm the Philippines” if we do not give them reason to. This is only true for as long as we do not assert our sovereign rights and continue to be their obedient “friend”. 

I am certain that we will find China quite Machiavellian if we stand our ground. In which case, we will miss our close relationship with America, however lopsided.

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