Alarmed by the growing aggressiveness of China, the Senate leadership is poised to ratify today the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (Sovfa) between the Philippines and Australia, a military treaty that does not allow basing rights and retain the country’s jurisdiction over heinous crimes such as rape.
Only Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has kept the Senate at bay, frustrating efforts by the chamber, led by the Senate foreign relations committee chairperson, Loren Legarda, to have the treaty, signed five years ago, passed as early as Monday.
For two days in a row, Santiago had effectively derailed the passage of Senate Resolution No. 788 calling for the ratification of the agreement.
Interpellating Legarda, sponsor of the treaty, Santiago complained that the treaty was “vague.” She claimed that it would exempt Australian troops from paying taxes during military exercises, and prevent Filipino and Australian courts from imposing the death penalty on erring soldiers.
“This treaty violates the doctrine of void for vagueness. It is so vague that it will spawn myriad irritants in RP-Australia relations,” said Santiago.
Santiago said that the proponents of the agreement had not made clear its constitutional basis.
“Why should Filipino military forces be trained by Australians in Philippine territory? Why are we not capable of training our own military forces within our own country?” she asked.
In her sponsorship speech, Legarda called for a “better prepared and better equipped naval and military force.”
“We are faced by grave dangers and threats not present 15 years ago and the Philippines is at the strategic center of all these realities,” said Legarda. “A strategic center that has no fulcrum will not be able to realistically wage a sustainable, winning crusade against these regional and global threats.”
Legarda pointed out that Australia and the Philippines were two sovereign nations “whose survival will be defined by its defense and protection of its maritime domains. We share with Australia a strong interest in maritime security cooperation and a shared strategic interest in the security of Southeast Asian shipping lanes.”
Despite Santiago’s concern, the Senate leadership vowed to ratify the treaty before the sine die adjournment on Wednesday.
During floor deliberations, senators stressed that the Sovfa was a much-needed “protective defensive treaty” amid the West Philippine Sea standoff, providing a measure of safety and confidence to the country on top of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Manila and Washington.
“We need no offensive treaty, but what we need is a protective defensive treaty with our friends and allies,” said Senator Edgardo Angara, explaining that the Sovfa would complete the so-called “security umbrella” of the Philippines
He noted that the Philippines had security arrangements—from North to South—South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Association of Southeast Asian Nations partners, Singapore and Indonesia.
“(The Sovfa) is a shield for defense that the Philippines needs. The Philippines is on its knees defensively. This one will provide a measure of safety and confidence,” he said, taking note of the lingering tension stemming from the disputed Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal.
According to Legarda, the Sovfa sets a precedent in defense agreements because it had unique provisions on environmental protection.
She explained that the agreement explicitly prohibited the conduct of exercises or other activities in protected areas, ancestral domain areas, critical watersheds and protected forest areas.
“It also provides that any environmental damage will be subject to claims and compensation and that the Sending State will be responsible for the rehabilitation of damaged areas,” she said.
Proposed by the Philippines in 2006, the Sovfa was signed in Camberra in 2007, and was ratified by Australia in the same year. President Benigno Aquino endorsed the treaty for Senate ratification in December 2010.
“The Sovfa is not a product of any country’s desire to expand and preserve its position of advantage over others,” Legarda said, explaining that the agreement would provide for enhanced bilateral defense and military cooperation between the Philippines and Australia through an exchange of visits.