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Duterte stands firm against VFA

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte ignored a Senate resolution to reconsider his decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States and directed Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Tuesday to notify Washington that he was ending the deal, slamming the door on any move to revive it.

His decision was welcomed by some legislators and worried others. Locsin indicated that the diplomatic note he sent to the US Embassy would trigger a renegotiation of the 1999 agreement during the 180-day withdrawal period before the termination takes effect.

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Locsin was reacting to a Twitter post by Joshua Melvin, Manila bureau chief of the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, who said: “Now the furious negotiations begin. 180 day countdown.”

“You’re the only one who got that. Other reactions have been idiotic,” said Locsin, who had earlier praised Mr. Duterte for his “good move” of announcing his desire to scrap the VFA but later favored “vigorous review” of the agreement.

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No more US visit

US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission John Law received the notice, according to Locsin. He declined further comment out of “diplomatic courtesy.”Although Locsin indicated that the termination notice was not the end of the accord, Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the President rejected any move to save it.

“The President will not entertain any initiative coming from the US government to salvage the VFA, neither will he accept any official invitation to visit the US,” Panelo said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.

“All these actions are anchored on the policy of the President to chart an independent foreign policy with our foreign relations with other states being based on national interests and general welfare,” he said.

“Aside from the inequities brought about by the provisions found in the VFA, the decision of the President to cause the termination of the agreement is a consequence of a series of legislative and executive actions by the US government that bordered on assaulting our sovereignty and disrespecting our judicial system,” Panelo said.

He was referring to the cancellation of the US visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, the former national police chief who was the principal implementor of Mr. Duterte’s bloody war on drugs and the resolution passed by US senators calling for the release from detention of the President’s most strident critic, Sen. Leila de Lima.

Panelo said the President “believes that our country cannot forever rely on other countries for the defense of the state and should instead strengthen our own resources for our defenses.”

‘Sense of the Senate’On Monday night, 13 senators voted in support of a “sense of the Senate” resolution asking the President to reconsider his plan to withdraw from the agreement while the chamber conducted a “thorough review” of the deal.

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According to Senate President Vicente Sotto III, one of the authors of the resolution, seven of the 20 senators present during the voting abstained, including Dela Rosa.

He said the Senate may legally challenge the President’s unilateral decision.

“I think there’s a possibility that this issue, that we have to be consulted fist before terminating (the VFA), will reach the Supreme Court,” Sotto told reporters.

Asked if he would back the possible legal action, the Senate leader said: “Yes, I will support it.”

Unfair arrangement

At the House of Representatives, Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the ways and means committee, said the VFA was never a fair arrangement as it “essentially exempted US personnel from Philippine jurisdiction, so long as the crimes they commit are not ‘of particular importance to the Philippines,’ which could mean anything convenient for US forces.”

“In practical terms, what all three agreements [including the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2012 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca)] mean is that we must side with the US in their wars, allow them to use our bases, and still be unable to try their personnel for most crimes in the country,” the Albay lawmaker said.

Toxic ties

“This is a toxic relationship,” he added.

Salceda said the Philippines “must renegotiate our relationship with the United States.”

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, leader of the opposition Makabayan bloc, welcomed the termination of the VFA, saying the President should next abrogate Edca and the MDT “as they are as onerous and violative, too, of our national sovereignty.”

All three accords, Zarate said, “are vestiges of neocolonial control of the US, a tool for direct intervention in the country, facilitating for instance the return of their basing facilities, interference in the counterinsurgency operations.”

Fill the gap

Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon, a vice chair of the House defense panel, said “the responsible thing to do now is to provide for the means to fill the (security) gap that will result from the termination.”

Biazon said the Philippines might have to revise and adjust its defense and security strategies in terms of deployment of military assets, appropriation of resources, engagement with foreign counterparts and regional military alliances.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan said Mr. Duterte’s decision would only favor China as it continued to flex its military might in the disputed South China Sea.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the abrogation of the VFA rendered the MDT “a mere paper treaty as far as the US is concerned.”

‘Like a dog on leash’

“Having said that, there’s no more intelligence information-sharing in our fight against domestic and foreign terrorist acts, no more US military aid and financing that accounts for a good 52 percent of what they extend to the whole Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

The VFA provides legal status to US troops who visit the country for humanitarian assistance and for dozens of military exercises that take place here annually.

It is the first time Mr. Duterte has scrapped an agreement with Washington, which he had denounced for hypocrisy and for treating the Philippines “like a dog on a leash.”

The President favors warmer ties with China and Russia than the United States, and has praised those countries and inflated their military contributions and donations, which are dwarfed by the $1.3 billion spent provided by the United States since 1998.

In a statement, the US Embassy said the government’s move was “a serious step with significant implications for the US-Philippines alliance.”

“We will carefully consider how best to move forward to advance our shared interests,” it said. “Our two countries enjoy a warm relationship, deeply rooted in history. We remain committed to the friendship between our two peoples.”

Bilateral meeting

In a teleconference with reporters on Monday, a US Department of State official said a bilateral strategic meeting tentatively scheduled for March would discuss the VFA.

Without the agreement, US Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper said the Philippines would lose hundreds of military engagements, joint trainings and port calls from the American military.

“So I imagine if one was sitting in Manila, that regardless if they’re in ministerial capacity or if they’re actually in an operational service capacity, they do not want to see any of these engagements or exercises either be reduced or disappear,” said Cooper.

Locsin told senators last week the VFA was fundamental to US-Philippine alliance. —With reports from Leila B. Salaveria, DJ Yap, and the wires

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TAGS: Rodrigo Duterte, Teodoro Locsin Jr, VFA, Visiting Forces Agreement
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