France keen on having VFA with PH soonest, envoy says
France is keen to start negotiations for the visiting forces agreement (VFA) with the Philippines to pave the way for reciprocal access and joint military activities, French Ambassador Marie Fontanel said on Wednesday.
During the visit of French Minister of the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu on Saturday, both countries agreed to deepen defense cooperation, including the possible establishment of a VFA that will allow their military forces to conduct joint activities in each other’s territory.
The Philippines and France have been participating as observers by sending small contingents in some of their respective military exercises.
“If we finalize the negotiations of a VFA, that will also be complementary to other possibilities, like joint patrols, someday,” Fontanel said in a press briefing in her residence in Makati City.
The Philippines has the same agreement with the United States and Australia, while negotiations are also underway for a similar deal with Japan.
Manila recently wrapped up separate inaugural joint patrols with Washington and Canberra in the West Philippine Sea amid worries over China’s increasingly aggressive behavior.
Manila has been ramping up its defense ties with several countries in a bid to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese ships have been harassing Philippine vessels on resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and have been loitering within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Paris has been committed to defend the principles of freedom of navigation and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and has supported the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea.
In July this year, France reaffirmed its support for the Philippines when around 50 Chinese vessels were found swarming near Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea.“We recall, in this regard, the arbitration award rendered under Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) on the 12th of July 2016,” the embassy said back then.
Fontanel said France is ready to start the VFA negotiations as soon as possible, or when President Marcos Jr. gives a go signal to start the discussions.
“Once we are entitled to, when it’s possible to start negotiations, we will be there,” she said.
A full-fledged defense mission from France will be posted in the country starting summer of next year to focus on the negotiations, the ambassador said.
“We are simply here. We are part of the Indo-Pacific family. That’s just geography. We have our overseas territories and we are concerned,” Fontanel said. “We, probably among our European friends and partners, we are the one who are maybe more directly concerned because we are part of the region,” she added.
France is also eager to support the Philippine military’s modernization program. French shipbuilder group is offering to build two diesel-electric submarines to the Philippine Navy.
South Korea’s Hanwha Ocean and Spain’s Navantia have also presented their offers.