DFA: Pandemic, tensions halted countdown to VFA termination
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte temporarily halted the countdown to the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States in August because of the coronavirus pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions,” according to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) informed the US Embassy of the President’s decision in a letter on Tuesday, way past the midpoint of the 180-day withdrawal period before the termination of the 21-year-old agreement was to take effect.
“I will answer only one question which I will ask myself: Why? Why did he change his mind?” Locsin said in a press conference on Wednesday.
“A man who does not change his mind cannot change anything,” Locsin said, noting that Mr. Duterte ran on the “Change is coming” slogan.
“In the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, a time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world,” he said, referring in part to the worsening economic and political conflicts between the United States and the world’s other superpowers, China and Russia.
Locsin said suspending the revocation of the VFA “reassures everyone” that the Philippines would continue its “strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies” for peace and economic progress.
Pivot away from US
The VFA was supposed to end on Aug. 9, or 180 days after the DFA served the notice of termination to the US Embassy on Feb. 11.
The President, who had said he wanted Philippine foreign policy to pivot away from the United States, was prompted to terminate the agreement after Washington canceled the visa of his former national police chief, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa.
On Tuesday night, Locsin announced the President’s order suspending the termination of the agreement “in light of political and other developments in the region.”
The DFA letter to the US Embassy said the countdown to the termination of the VFA would be suspended for six months and may be extended by the Philippines for another six months “after which the tolling of the initial period” of suspension “shall resume.”
The US Embassy welcomed the move.
“We look forward to continuing strong defense and security cooperation with the Philippines,” it said in a brief statement on Tuesday night.
Del Rosario: ‘A good day’
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who opposed the VFA termination, congratulated the President.
“It’s a good day,” he said in a text message sent to reporters on Wednesday.
Six senators led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III had petitioned the Supreme Court to order Malacañang to get the Senate’s consent before unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement.
It was only on Tuesday, hours before Locsin’s announcement, that the court ordered Malacañang to comment on the petition.
The VFA, ratified in 1999, allowed large-scale presence of American troops in the country eight years after the Philippines closed all US military bases in the country.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine defense establishment was ready to continue working closely with its US counterparts “to find solutions to common concerns such as the ongoing pandemic that has greatly affected both our countries.”
He said in an interview with CNN Philippines on Wednesday that the VFA termination was briefly discussed by the Cabinet and the President last month and it was agreed that “it is not timely to end the VFA because of what’s happening worldwide.”
Lorenzana said he expected more US aid to the Philippines’ fight against COVID-19 in the next six months.
For national interest
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, one of the senators who questioned the VFA termination in the Supreme Court, welcomed the President’s “change of heart,” saying the country needed stronger defense alliance with the US in the wake of recent Chinese “intrusions” in the West Philippine Sea.
“The last thing that we should lose is the balance of power that the US, among other allies like Australia and other neighbors, can provide to suit our national interest and territorial integrity,” the Senate defense committee chair told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said Mr. Duterte’s action would not render the petition he and other senators filed in the high tribunal “moot and academic.”
“The case stands,” he said.
Dela Rosa said the President’s decision showed foreign policy “can be flexible at times.”
Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, the President’s longtime aide, said Mr. Duterte was “capable of adapting his policy to the changing conditions of time.”
“As we pursue an independent foreign policy, it is also important to foster continuing cooperation (with other countries) against pandemics. This is a humanitarian action that will benefit everybody,” he said.
For Sen. Richard Gordon, the COVID-19 crisis should prompt the government to preserve and develop its diplomatic relations with other countries like the United States. Mr. Duterte showed his “open-mindedness and willingness in reviewing decisions that impact the country’s national interest,” Gordon said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said the President’s move was “unfortunate” but it “did not come as a surprise because the Duterte administration is still actually still dependent on US economic and military aid and direction.”
Zarate said the VFA, along with other agreements with the United States, including the (Mutual Defense Treaty) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, “only gave the US an onerous excuse to intervene or meddle in the country’s affairs while at the same time making our officials the butler of its political, military and economic agenda in the region.”
—With reports from Marlon Ramos, Jeannette I. Andrade and DJ Yap
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