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Senate OKs Philippines-Australia pact

Sen. Joker Arroyo, the lone dissenter who questioned the chamber’s sudden decision to ratify the agreement, suggested that the Philippines’ unresolved territorial dispute with China may have been the trigger for the vote.

Senators on Tuesday voted 17 to 1 to ratify the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (Sovfa) between the Philippines and Australia on third and final reading.

Senator Joker Arroyo, the lone dissenter who questioned the chamber’s sudden decision to ratify the agreement, suggested that the Philippines’ unresolved territorial dispute with China may have been the trigger for the vote.

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“We have not ratified the Sovfa between Australia and the Philippines for two years because we did not see the need for it. But because of our problem with China which claims some islands in the West Philippine Sea which are ours, we suddenly want to ratify it,” he said.

Out-and-out ally

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The Senate is tasked with scrutinizing and ratifying treaties with foreign countries, requiring the vote of at least 16 senators.

Arroyo noted that since tensions erupted between the Philippines and China over the Panatag Shoal last April, other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) “hesitate to lend us their token support.”

“Why should we enlist Australia, which is so far away and an out-and-out ally of the United States, to be our ally, too?” he asked.

“Asean, our regional friends and geographically close to us, hesitate to lend us their token support. Why should we enlist Australia, which is so far away and an out and out ally of the US to be our ally too?” Arroyo said.

“Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China. Let us not grab at straws. We must persevere,” the veteran lawmaker said.

Arroyo warned that although the Sovfa is not a defense pact with either the US or Australia, China can easily interpret it as such.

“Its symbolism cannot be lost on China,” he said.

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Senator Teofisto Guingona III sought to assuage fears that the Sovfa requires either country to engage in war with the other’s enemy.

“It does not say that we have to fight with Australian troops if they are at war and it does not say that Australian troops must fight with us if we are at war with other countries … Let us not mislead the Filipino people into believing that we have to vote for this agreement because Australia will help us in time of serious armed conflict,” he said.

No knee-jerk reaction

In explaining “yes” vote, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile described Australia as “a more reliable ally than the US.”

Senator Loren Legarda, the foreign relations committee chairman, said the Sovfa ratification “is not a knee-jerk reaction to what is happening in the West Philippine Sea” where the Panatag Shoal is located.

“This is not against China … This agreement has been pending since 2007 and endorsed by the Aquino administration and even the previous administration,” she noted.

She said the military’s modernization program would benefit from the Sovfa since Filipino soldiers would undergo training and orientation in modern firearms available in Australia.

Meanwhile, Senators Ferdinand “Bong-bong” Marcos Jr. and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who were also strong critics of the resolution, were absent in Tuesday’s session.

Milestone

The Department of Foreign Affairs welcomed the Senate’s concurrence with the Sovfa, hailing it as marking “another milestone in Philippine-Australian relations.”

In a statement, the DFA said the Sovfa “paves the way for enhanced cooperation in capacity-building and training of armed forces, interoperability to undertake humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations, counter-terrorism, border security, and maritime security.”

It said Canberra “has been assisting the Philippines in strengthening its maritime security capability with initiatives, such as the Coast Watch South project and the joint maritime training activity Lumbas. These initiatives are expected to be further expanded and strengthened under the Sovfa.”

It said the Philippines and Australia are also set to convene a strategic dialogue to be cochaired by foreign affairs and defense officials of the two countries, a bilateral mechanism that will “definitely complement the Sovfa.” With Jerry Esplanada

Originally posted: 4:40 pm | Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

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TAGS: Asia-Pacific, Australia, China, Features, Foreign affairs, Global Nation, International relations, Maritime Dispute, Military, nation, Panatag Shoal, Senate, Sovfa, Status of Visiting Forces Agreement, West Philippine Sea
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