Senate ratifies military treaty with AustraliaBy Cathy C. Yamsuan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—Senators voted 17-1 to ratify the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (Sovfa) between the Philippines and Australia on third and final reading on Tuesday.
Sen. Joker Arroyo, the lone dissenter, questioned the chamber’s sudden decision to ratify the agreement, citing the unresolved territorial dispute between the country and China as the possible trigger for the vote.
“We have not ratified the Sovfa between Australia and the Philippines for two years because we did not see the need for it. But because of our problem with China, which claims some islands in the West Philippine Sea which are ours, we suddenly want to ratify it,” he said.
The Senate is the lone government body tasked to scrutinize and endorse foreign treaties. The vote of at least 16 senators is required before a foreign agreement is deemed accepted.
The Sovfa provides for enhanced bilateral defense and military cooperation between the Philippines and Australia through exchange of visits. It is intended to enhance cooperation in dealing with maritime terrorism and other security threats.
Proposed by the Philippines in 2006, it was signed and ratified by Australia in 2007. In December 2010, President Aquino endorsed the treaty for Senate ratification. Two-thirds concurrence by the Senate was needed for the agreement to come into force.
Arroyo pointed out that since tension erupted between the Philippines and China over the Panatag Shoal, other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “hesitate to lend us their token support.”
“Why should we enlist Australia, which is so far away and an out-and-out ally of the US, to be our ally, too,” he asked.
Arroyo warned that although the Sovfa is not a defense pact with either the US or Australia, China can easily interpret it as such.
“Its symbolism cannot be lost on China,” he said.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III stood up to assuage fears that the Sovfa requires either country to engage in war with the other’s enemy.
“It does not say that we have to fight with Australian troops if they are at war and it does not say that Australian troops must fight with us if we are at war with other countries…. Let us not mislead the Filipino people into believing that we have to vote for this agreement because Australia will help us in time of serious armed conflict,” Guingona said.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile described Australia as “a more reliable ally than the US” in explaining his “yes” vote.
Senate foreign relations committee chair Loren Legarda clarified that the Sovfa ratification “is not a knee jerk reaction to what is happening in the West Philippine Sea” where Panatag Shoal is located.
“This is not against China…. This agreement has been pending since 2007 and endorsed by the Aquino administration and even the previous administration,” Legarda noted.
She added that the military’s modernization program would benefit from the Sovfa since Filipino soldiers would be subject to training and orientation in modern firearms available in Australia.