AFP chief tells troops: Self-reliance is light at end of VFA tunnel
ZAMBOANGA CITY—-Armed Forces Chief Felimon Santos Jr asked soldiers here to see the silver lining in the trashing by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.
“It will make us self-reliant,” Santos told soldiers of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) on Tuesday (Feb. 18).
“The President has decided to send a notice of termination of the VFA,” Santos said.
“I want everybody to know that this is the decision of the President and I want everybody to know that it will not affect us. Instead, it will make us self-reliant,” Santos said.
He disclosed that he had discussed the matter with lawmakers and told them “that with the termination of the VFA, we really need their support to fill in the gaps.”
Earlier, Santos said about half of the more than 300 joint activities between the AFP and the US military would either be postponed or cancelled with the abrogation of the VFA.
Also, military officers in Mindanao have expressed concern over the possible loss of US support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities against Islamic State followers still lurking in the region.
In a conversation with journalists, Santos characterized the abrogation of the VFA as “a political decision by the President.”
He admitted that ending the pact “will create some gaps” in the country’s defense capability.
“‘We are not saying that there is no effect, but we could fill in the gaps,” Santos said.
He said that military exercises were beneficial to Philippine soldiers. Such activities are among those provided under the VFA.
“It enhances our skills with other countries, we have scenarios, but we could do that with other countries like Australia,” said Santos.
He said the Philippine government is pushing for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Australia, South Korea and even Indonesia.
“We could bring their forces here to conduct actual exercises with our troops,” Santos said. “We need those,” he added.
The country has a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia that was ratified in 2012.
Santos also cited other opportunities such as interoperability exercises with Asian countries like South Korea and joint maritime exercises with Indonesia.
On Balikatan exercises with the US, Santos said these are still on.
“We will discuss that this March. All aspects will be discussed,” said the AFP chief.
Asked about the existing operational forward base of US troops inside the Westmincom compound, Santos said that after 180 days, “if nothing happens and termination pushes through, they will have to vacate.”
But he said the friendship between the US and Philippine military “will never change” even without the VFA.
Experts have said that other defense and military cooperation pacts between the Philippines and US would be rendered useless without the VFA.
Santos explained that the AFP will continue to deal with the US for logistics “as some of our equipment are US-made, we have to get parts from them.”
“The friendship will be there, just like (what) we experienced in 1991. After the bases agreement expired, they left, but they are still here and we are conducting table top exercises,” said Santos. The 1991 treaty that would have extended the stay of US military bases in the Philippines was rejected by the Philippine Senate.
On possibly holding joint military exercises with either Russia or China, Santos said the AFP “will be working with all countries because we have an independent foreign policy.”
“Common national interest is the basis and we don’t have any enemy state, we are talking here of common interest,” said Santos in Filipino.
Edited by TSB
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