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US: Wrong move to end VFA amid China buildup

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper

UNFORTUNATE US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who visited the Philippines in November 2019, says President Duterte made the unfortunate move of scrapping the 1999 pact at a time when China is disregarding international rules of order in the disputed South China Sea. —LYN RILLON

MANILA, Philippines — US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has called President Rodrigo Duter­te’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States wrong and ill-timed as the two countries and their allies try to make China follow proper conduct in the South China Sea.

But Malacañang on Wednesday insisted that the President made the right move.

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Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that “as far as the President is concerned,” the agreement would not be renegotiated to seek better terms for the country.

Manila officially served its notice of termination of the VFA to the US Embassy in Manila on Tuesday.

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Speaking to reporters traveling with him on a plane to Brussels, Belgium, Esper said: “It’s unfortunate that they (Philippine government) would make this move.”

‘Parasite’ no more

“I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction as we both, bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region, are trying to say to the Chinese: ‘You must obey the international rules of order. You must obey, you know. Abide by international norms,’” Esper said.

He added: “I think it’s a move in the wrong direction for the long-standing relationship we’ve had with the Philippines, for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries.”

China has built a string of artificial islands to fortify its historical claims over nearly the entire South China Sea, including parts of the West Philippine Sea. An international tribunal invalidated its claims in a 2016 ruling in favor the Philippines.

“From our point of view, however, the decision to terminate the VFA is a move in the right direction that should have been done a long time ago,” Panelo said.

Del Rosario sees ‘tragedy’

He said the President’s decision could strengthen the country’s military forces without relying on any foreign power.

“Reliance on another country for our own defenses against the enemies of the state will ultimately weaken and stagnate our defense mechanisms,” he said, adding that the country must stand on its own and stop “being a parasite to another country.”

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Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Wednesday strongly opposed Duter­te’s decision to withdraw from the 1999 accord, which provides the legal basis for the presence of US troops in the country after the Senate refused to renew the lease on the US military bases in 1991.

“What is unfolding before us must be considered a national tragedy which should be resisted,” he said in a statement. “Our people must take a stand. We appeal to our esteemed institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court to lead us.”

Del Rosario, now chair of the ADR Stratbase think tank, said the termination of the VFA could ultimately put an end to the 2012 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the two countries.

“This continuing shift in foreign policy casting aside a longtime reliable ally in favor of an aggressive neighbor that has been blatantly demonstrating its lack of respect for international law is incomprehensible and harmful to our country and our people.” he said.

“We must be with responsible nations with whom we share our core values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. To stand otherwise, is not what Filipinos are; it is not what we do; it is not what is right,” he added.

No need to scrap Edca Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said that without the VFA, the MDT would be rendered “hollow” and the Edca “practically useless,” an assertion made by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. last week during a Senate hearing.

“But note this: We survived the historic termination of the Philippine-US military bases agreement; there’s no reason why we shall not survive the termination of a mere Visiting Forces Agreement,” Guevarra told reporters.

He said the MDT “need not be scrapped.”

“Maybe in the future, new arrangements may be entered into that will give teeth and muscle to this treaty, or it may be scrapped altogether. Foreign policy is dynamic; it evolves with the times,” he said.

He said the President “had everything he needed to know” before he scrapped the agreement.

Guevarra said the Senate’s concurrence to terminate treaties like the VFA was not required under the Constitution. It is a political question that the Supreme Court would refuse to resolve, he explained.

‘Political decision’

Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff, said the military supported the President’s “political decision” to scrap the agreement and echoed Guevarra’s views that “we will live without the VFA.”

“[Scrapping the VFA] will make us more eager to build up our own capability,” he told members of the congressional Commission on Appointments, which confirmed his designation as the country’s military chief on Wednesday.

“We [were able to] live after the US bases agreement was revoked [by the Senate] in 1991. Up until 1997, we did not receive [anything from the US], but nothing happened to us,” he pointed out.

He said the AFP would focus on strengthening military cooperation with the country’s other allies like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and even China.

—With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Jerome Aning and Marlon Ramos

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TAGS: Maritime Dispute, Mark Esper, PH-US Relations, Rodrigo Duterte, VFA, Visiting Forces Agreement, West Philippine Sea
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