VFA not dead yet
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2020 - 12:00am

It would seem like a reversal of roles. What is taking place between the Senate of the 18th Congress and Malacanang on the issue of abrogating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the United States (US) and the Philippines appears this way.

 Flashback: On Sept. 8,1991, the Philippine Senate during the 8th Congress, voted to reject the renewal of the 1947 RP-US Military Bases Agreement (MBA). With 12 Senators out of 24 voted not to extend the MBA, the Philippine Senate adopted a motion to spurn the proposed new treaty that would allow thousands of American troops to continue to remain at their military base here for another 10 years.

Then sitting Senate president, the late Sen. Jovito Salonga voted against the proposed new bases treaty and joined by Senate minority leader Wigberto Tanada, Senate majority leader Teofisto Guingona, and Senators Rene Saguisag, Victor Ziga, Sotero Laurel, Ernesto Maceda, Agapito Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile, Joseph Estrada, Orlando Mercado, and Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

The 11 senators who voted in favor of the new treaty to extend the MBA were five short of the two-thirds majority to ratify it in compliance with the mandates under our country’s 1987 Constitution.

The late president Corazon Aquino even led a rally to sway the Senators to vote for extension of the MBA. Pro-US bases groups led by former Olongapo City Mayor and now Senator Richard Gordon joined Mrs.Aquino in the march from Malacanang all the way to the Senate formerly located at Agrifina Circle in Manila to dramatize their stand.

But the Senate proceeded to reject the extended stay of the former US bases in Clark Airfield in Angeles City, Pampanga, and Subic Naval Base in Olongapo City, Zambales. The rejection of the MBA extension touched off a souring of relations between Washington and Manila.

 It became imperative for the nation’s policymakers to mend fences with our staunchest ally in this part of the world. Entered into in 1998, the VFA came into existence toward the end of the administration of former president Fidel Ramos. When he succeeded Ramos into office at Malacanang in June 1998, former president Joseph Estrada honored existing sovereign commitments by all of his predecessors, including the VFA.

Although he was one of the so-called “Magnificent 12” who voted to abrogate the MBA in 1991, Estrada worked hard for the ratification of the VFA.

Thus, VFA, as crafted, became a gesture of continuing goodwill and amity between the two allies. It was Estrada’s then Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) Secretary Jose Jaime C. “Jimmie” Policarpio Jr. who led the drawing up of the VFA scheme. Policarpio conducted nationwide consultations with a plethora of stakeholders before this was mapped out and ratified during the Estrada presidency.

Estrada himself handpicked Policarpio as the Cabinet official to build rapport and a common ground between lawmakers and stakeholders to finalize the VFA. Policarpio was tasked to liaise with the Senate leadership under then Senate President Marcelo Fernan and Sen. Blas Ople, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the “smooth” passage of the VFA.

While the Senate rejection of the MBA did not include scrapping of the 1951 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty, the VFA served to bolster this still existing treaty. Later, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) came into effect on June 6, 2014 when this was signed by former president Benigno Simeon Aquino III.

The EDCA allows the rotational presence of US troops in agreed locations inside Philippine military bases, for training and related activities such as transit and refueling. Subsequently, the Supreme Court (SC) declared the EDCA as constitutional. The pact did not need Senate ratification as it was deemed as an executive agreement that implements both the MDT and the VFA.

Fast forward. President Rodrigo Duterte ordered last week the serving of notice to Washington of the Philippine government intention to pre-terminate the VFA. The official notice was served at the height of President Duterte’s pique over what he took as the latest affronts of the American government to a sovereign country like the Philippines.

The voiding of the US visa of his erstwhile police chief and now Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa became the last straw of the camel’s back. It came after four American Senators succeeded to include in the 2020 US federal budget law a provision in support of detained Senator Leila de Lima who was viewed as “wrongfully” jailed for being an opposition leader against President Duterte and his administration in the Philippines. As the former Philippine National Police chief, Dela Rosa is among the Duterte administration officials identified as behind the jailing of De Lima.

Now being abruptly cut short by the present administration, the Senators led by incumbent Senate president Vicente Sotto III vowed to elevate the VFA abrogation issue before the High Court.

Under Sotto’s leadership, the initiation of the abrogation process of the VFA – although upon the instance of President Duterte – is still subject to the Senate confirmation. While the President of the Republic is considered as the chief architect on foreign policy matters, the 1987 Constitution empowered the Senate as the treaty-ratifying body.

The Constitution though does not explicitly say that the President is the chief architect of foreign policy. But this has been held by the SC in several rulings about the Chief Executive’s power to enter into sovereign agreements and contracts entered into with other countries. And this is now what is currently being debated between these two co-equal branches of government on the abrogation of the VFA.

Speaking for the general sentiments of some of his fellow Senators, Sotto argued the VFA abrogation must first pass through the scrutiny of the Upper Chamber. Sotto, who voted to ratify the VFA, maintains the position that President Duterte’s intention to abrogate the VFA must also get the two-thirds vote of the Senate to approve or reject it.

So for now, the VFA anyway, is still not yet dead.

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