President Rodrigo Duterte suspended the abrogation of the Philippines' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States due to "heightened super power tensions" as the world reeled from the coronavirus pandemic, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Wednesday.
The Philippines' move towards its long-standing treaty ally "alarms no countries in Asia and the rest of the world," Locsin Jr. said in a press conference at the Department of Foreign Affairs office.
In February, Duterte sought the abrogation of the VFA, the mechanism for joint training between the Filipino and American military forces, as he pivoted foreign policy towards China.
The coronavirus crisis further heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, which has improved its ties with Manila under the Duterte adminstration, as US President Donald Trump blamed China for the contagion.
“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the US even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense towards enduring stability and peace continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Locsin said.
READ: PH suspends abrogation of VFA for 6 months
The President had cited “political and other developments in the region” as the DFA chief explained why the President had a change of heart.
“I will answer only one question which I will ask myself: Why did he change his mind? A man who does not change his mind cannot change anything. He ran on the slogan ‘change is coming.’
“But in the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, the time of pandemic and heightened super power 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,” Locsin said.
According to Locsin, many leaders in the region and other parts of the world find the Philippine government’s decision reassuring.
“Let me assure you that this action alarms no countries in Asia and the rest of the world. On the contrary it greatly reassures everyone,” the DFA chief said.
“Everyone now is free to speculate about what is clear and true on its face. But the reckless and bad intention may undo, though I doubt they have the credibility the good that we all, women and men of peace and goodwill, seek,” he added.
The US government welcomed the decision of the Duterte administration.
READ: Duterte suspends VFA abrogation, US welcomes move
“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” the US Embassy said, in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has ordered the Office of the President to comment on the petition filed last March by several senators seeking to compel Duterte to submit to the Senate for concurrence the government’s termination or withdrawal of the VFA.
SC Spokesperson Brian Keith F. Hosaka confirmed that the tribunal has required the OP to file its comment but “as to how many days were given for the comment, I am having it checked and verified to be sure.”
The SC required Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea and Locsin to comment on the petition in 10 days, but an insider said that “the filing of the comment may be done earlier because of the ‘suspension of revocation’ of VFA as appearing in the newspapers.”
Senators Richard Gordon and Franklin Drilon, who were among the lawmakers who filed the petition with the high court, said the government's decision to suspend the withdrawal from the VFA was a welcome development.
"The year already started out tempestuously—with intensified differences having sprung up in erstwhile relatively smooth international and bilateral relationships, terrorism remaining a serious problem,” Gordon said.
“Now with this pandemic that we are facing, it is not a time for breaking up relations but a time for cooperation, especially longstanding friendships. We have to continue to develop our ties with the United States. We have had a long history, bumpy as it is," he added.
Drilon said unhampered implementation of the VFA will serve the interest of our country, particularly with regard to the preservation of Filipino rights over parts of the West Philippine Sea.
READ: PH not going back to VFA, Locsin asserts
"The abrupt abrogation of the VFA last February as initiated by the President—which was done amid the increasing aggressiveness and the bullying of China —is disadvantageous to us. What the country truly needs is a stable foreign policy that promotes our interest," he said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said the President’s change of heart is a welcome development as far as defense and economic security of the country is concerned.
"The Philippines needs the Visiting Forces Agreement especially now that Chinese intrusions into our territory, particularly in the West Philippines Sea, have become common place," he said.
"It is a no-brainer that we can’t stand on our own and protect ourselves from harassment coming from those intrusions," the senator added.
The grounds for the suspension of the termination of the VFA are “explanatory,” Malacañang said on Wednesday.
“The wordings of the communiqué sent to the US State Department, the words itself are explanatory,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel.
Duterte never mentioned with his Cabinet members his plan to suspend the abrogation of VFA, Roque said.
“It was not publicly brought up. I learned about it two weeks ago but it did not come from the mouth of the President himself. So I need to talk to him about it,” Roque said.
"The Philippine defense establishment is ready to continue working closely with our US counterparts to find solutions to common concerns, such as the ongoing pandemic that has greatly affected both our countries," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement sent to reporters Wednesday.
Lorenzana said the DND and the Armed Forces of the Philippines would consult with the Office of the Presidential Commission on Visiting Forces on issues that need to be addressed.
The DFA notified the US Embassy in Manila about the abrogation of the VFA after the US cancelled the visa of Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, the former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief and close ally of President Duterte.
While the US government did not mention any reason for the cancellation of Dela Rosa’ visa, many critics believed it was due to his involvement in alleged human rights violations arising from the administration’s strong campaign against illegal drugs.
On February 11 this year, the DFA sent an official letter of termination of the VFA to the US.
However, on June 1, Locsin sent a diplomatic note to the US Embassy in Manila notifying them of the President’s decision to suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement.
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