President studying side deal to VFA – Lorenzana
MANILA, Philippines — An “addendum” to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States has been submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte for approval, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday.
Lorenzana also said he would hold talks with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, who would be visiting the Philippines on July 29 to July 30 as part of a three-nation Southeast Asian tour, which includes Singapore and Vietnam.
Although there is still no agenda for his meeting with Austin, Lorenzana said that he expected the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to be discussed along with the broader bilateral ties between the two countries as well as the situation in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.
Lorenzana did not say whether the addendum to the VFA, which governs the conduct of US forces when they are in the Philippines for military exercises, would be finalized during the US defense secretary’s visit.
“There is no change in the VFA. The document will not be changed but there will be some addendum, side agreement to implement the VFA,” Lorenzana said without elaborating on what was included.
“That document crafted by the VFA commission is now in Malacañang and is being studied by the Office of the President,” he told reporters during a forum ahead of the President’s State of the Nation Address on Monday.
He said the side agreement was intended to implement the provisions of the VFA and “once it is signed by the President, it will be an official document attached to the VFA.”
In February last year, a month before the President declared the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines, he ordered the termination of the VFA. His decision followed the disclosure by Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa that his US visa had been canceled.
But in June 2020, before the end of the 180-day transition period prior to the expiry of the agreement, the President suspended its abrogation for six months.
That period was extended for another six months and in June this year, he again extended the suspension to the end of the year.
“Let’s see what happens, if the President extends it or proceeds with the abrogation of the VFA,” Lorenzana said.
In February this year, the President said he wanted the Americans to pay for the continuation of the VFA.
“I would like to put on notice, if there’s an American agent here, that from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement done? Well, you have to pay,” Mr. Duterte said in his speech on the arrival of several new military aircraft at Clark Field in Pampanga.
“It’s a shared responsibility but your share of responsibility does not come free because after all when the war breaks out, we all pay,” he said.
The Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel Romualdez, said the two countries had revamped the VFA and its new terms were submitted to the President, according to a Reuters report early last month.
“We are confident he (Mr. Duterte) will see that there’s marked improvement in the terms of agreement,” Romualdez said.
He did not specify what the changes were but that they were “acceptable” and “mutually beneficial.” It was also unclear whether these new terms were the addendum that Lorenzana was referring to.
Quoting the US Embassy in Manila, Reuters said the Philippines was the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region, having received P33 billion ($690.45 million) since 2015.
Romualdez said the Philippines expects to get $40 million in US foreign military financing in its next fiscal year.
For Lorenzana, what really needs revisiting is the MDT, which was signed in 1951 at the height of the Cold War when the communist movement was sweeping across East Asia.
“The situation is different now,” he said. “Both sides, [the] United States and the Philippines, should take steps to do something to make the document more relevant to the current times.”
Lorenzana first broached the idea of reviewing and amending the MDT in 2017, particularly on the scope of the areas covered by the treaty.
—WITH A REPORT FROM REUTERS
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