Duterte suspends VFA termination

POSTSCRIPT - Federico D. Pascual Jr. - The Philippine Star

President Duterte’s changing his mind about terminating the Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement 180 days after Feb. 11 was not entirely unexpected, but it still raised many questions. Even plain folk are asking “What’s going on?”

Upon instruction of the President, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. sent on Monday a diplomatic note to the US embassy suspending the 180-day countdown toward the abrogation in August of the 1999 agreement on the status of visiting American forces.

Why did Duterte lift the pressure three months after serving his notice of termination? At that time, he was denouncing what he described as US meddling in internal affairs of this former colony, particularly its handling of human rights issues.

His move to junk the VFA followed a pattern of publicly finding fault with Uncle Sam while having an affair with Beijing that was hypnotizing him with promises of massive investments, aid, and loans for his ambitious Build! Build! Build! infrastructure program.

Locsin said on Twitter the other day: “I issued this diplomatic note to the US ambassador. It has been received by Washington and well at that. The Note is self-explanatory and does not require comment except from me. The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement has been suspended upon the President’s instruction.”

He was referring to Note No. 2020-2622 sent June 1 to the US embassy whose substantive portion reads:

“In light of political and other developments in the region, the termination of the Agreement between the (Philippine and United States governments) regarding the treatment of United States Forces Visiting the Philippines contained in Note No. 20-0463 dated 11 February 2020 is hereby suspended.

“The suspension shall start on even date and shall continue for six months which period is extendible by the Philippines for another six months, after which the tolling of the initial period in Note Verbale No. 20-0463 dated 11 February 2020 shall resume.”

Note the last part saying in effect that the suspension is potentially for six months from June 1 plus another six months, for a total of one year. At some point, Duterte might even move the VFA’s expiry date again, depending on the prevailing winds.

This first suspension of the termination notice covers the current campaign leading to the Nov. 3 presidential election in the US. Trump will go through his reelection drive with the VFA question pushed aside with the gamut of contentious Philippine-US issues.

Was the suspension of the termination notice a Duterte pressure tactic or an idea that came from the handlers of Trump?

If it was the latter, what concessions were made by the White House to Duterte? But if it was Duterte’s way of pressuring Trump about anything, why has the Davao mayor grown so bold as to play hardball with the US leader?

If he is smart, and many of us think he is, Duterte may have been looking around lately to check if the promises of his other friend and supposed benefactor from the mainland have been delivered, or at least positioned in the pipeline.

Adept at playing a ménage à trois of sorts, Duterte could have kept close both Washington and Beijing, in the spirit of pursuing an “independent” foreign policy, of being a friend to all and a foe to no one —if he needed a justification for diplomatic ambivalence.

But by his lonesome and in deliberate disregard of the traditional advice and consent of the Senate, he had chosen China, going to the extent of reportedly hocking patrimonial assets in onerous deals with the Chinese.

Those who have the time and access would find it interesting to dredge the bottom of the water that had gone under the bilateral bridge since Feb. 11 when the original notice of termination was sent more than three months ago.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in February that Duterte’s move to terminate VFA was “unfortunate”. (At that time, the allies’ armed forces still had hundreds of joint military activities for the year.) “I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction.”

In Washington, President Trump, ever the businessman, said of Duterte’s threat of termination: “If they would like to do that, that’s fine. We’ll save a lot of money.”

Also, there is the report on the State Department’s approving recently a possible sale to the Philippines of six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and related equipment for an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. A somewhat surprising development. https://tinyurl.com/ycmvdjq5

All the while, China has continued its aggressive buildup and militarization of features strategically located in Philippine waters with Duterte unable, or unwilling, to openly protest the intrusion.

We have lost not just those precious islands and their resources, probably by default, but also countless jobs and opportunities to the hordes of Chinese moving from the mainland like they owned Manila and Davao, bringing with them vice, crime and indignity.

There is a perception that Duterte, dazzled by the promises of his astute counterpart, was too involved in their liaison to move away quickly from it. Perhaps he thought it was worth trying to get what he wanted from Xi.

Then late last year, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contagion erupted in Wuhan City, spreading a pandemic and economic ruin everywhere, even in China from where it sprang before leapfrogging to the Philippines and the rest of the world.

The coronavirus, among many factors, has helped shake up the trilateral relationship among China, the Philippines and the United States.

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Nota Bene: All Postscripts are archived at manilamail.com. Author is on Twitter as @FDPascual. Feedback can be emailed to [email protected]

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