The United States government through Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin has reaffirmed its alliance and commitment with the Philippines under the 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement during his “introductory phone call,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
In a statement released by Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, Austin discussed with Lorenzana “a number of priority bilateral defense issues for both countries.”
“Secretary Austin affirmed the US commitment to the US-Philippines alliance and out bilateral Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement, highlighting the value the VFA brings to both countries,” Pentagon’s statement said.
Austin and Lorenzana also discussed the importance of enhancing the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ capabilities and “increasing interoperability between the two militaries through a variety of bilateral security cooperation activities.”
During the phone conversation, the two defense secretaries also talked about issues of regional security, including the hotly contested South China Sea, counter-terrorism and maritime security “and reaffirmed the importance of upholding international rules, to include the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.”
Austin’s reassurance of Washington’s commitment with its alliance with Manila came a few weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. that the US under the Biden administration remained committed to defend the Philippines against any armed attack in the South China Sea amid Beijing’s new law authorizing its Coast Guard to shoot foreign vessels in the disputed waters it claims in the South China Sea.
“Secretary Blinken stressed the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations, and its clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea,” Blinken said, in a statement released by the US State Department.
On Monday, Locsin disclosed that the Philippines and the United States would meet before the end of February to discuss the fate of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, which was suspended by President Rodrigo Duterte last year.
“I am narrowing down the issues and soon we will meet in the last week of February and iron out whatever differences we have and come to an agreement,” Locsin said, in a television interview.
In February last year, Duterte ordered the abrogation of the VFA, which allows American soldiers to regularly train with their Filipino counterparts in the country after the US cancelled the visa of his close aide and former police chief now senator, Ronald Dela Rosa.
The US did not specify the reason for revoking Dela Rosa’s visa, but many believed that it was due to his involvement in Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, which killed at least 6,000.
But Manila suspended the VFA’s termination process on June 1, citing “political and other developments in the region.”
Then in November last year, President Duterte decided to extend for another six months the suspension of the pact’s termination amid lingering tensions in the disputed South China Sea.
Locsin explained that the President’s decision will enable both sides “to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our mutual defense.”
“The past four years have changed the South China Sea from one of uncertainty about great powers’ intentions to one of predictability and resulting stability with regard to what can and cannot be done, what will and will not be acceptable with regard to the conduct of any protagonist in the South China Sea. Clarity and strength have never posed a risk. It is confusion and indecision that aggravate risk,” Locsin said, in an earlier statement.
The VFA governs the treatment of US servicemen in military units and defense personnel who are in the Philippine territory for short periods for joint military exercises approved by both the Philippine and US governments.
It entered into force on May 27, 1999, eight years after the closure of US military bases in the Philippines in 1991. It was negotiated and signed during the time of President Fidel V. Ramos and ratified during President Joseph Estrada’s time.
The MDT between the Philippines and the US was signed in 1951 wherein the parties agreed that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either the Philippines or the US would be dangerous and that they would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.
Meanwhile, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Wednesday said filing a case before the United Nations tribunal against China’s Coast Guard law would not affect the country’s legal victory in the South China Sea dispute before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016
Carpio stressed that the Philippine government could invoke the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration when it files a formal complaint before a UN body in the event that China fires on a Philippine vessel in the West Philippine Sea.
Under the 2016 arbitral ruling, the PCA invalidated Beijing’s massive claim over the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in West Philippine Sea.
The former SC magistrate said the Philippine government should wait for an actual incident where China applies the law against a Filipino vessel.
“We wait for China to actually apply this law against us because that will make our case stronger. We will not only be speculating, we will actually be basing our action on an actual case, actual controversy,” Carpio said in an interview with CNN Philippines.
“It will not affect [the arbitral ruling] because we are actually going to an UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) tribunal and the basis of our case before this UNCLOS tribunal is that we have that ruling and that ruling says the resources within our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) belongs to the Philippines and China is stopping us from exploiting our resources,” he assured.
Carpio made the statement after Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. earlier shot down proposals to take China before the UN over the coast guard law because it will “reopen the arbitral award,” which invalidated Beijing’s massive maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Locsin also cited China’s influence over many members of the UN.
But Locsin emphasized that the Philippines would take stronger action in case of an incident as a result of the implementation of the law, which which allows China’s Coast Guard to shoot foreign vessels that encroach Chinese sovereignty.
The Department of Foreign Affairs last month filed a diplomatic protest over the law, which according to China complies with international law and does not specifically target any certain country.
“It’s only China that is saying that they can use their domestic law in the exclusive economic zone of other countries. This is an aberration of international law,” Carpio said.
In a related development, Senator Risa Hontiveros urged the Department of National Defense to take China’s Coast Guard Law seriously, after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that China’s new law did not concern Filipino fisherfolk because they were not armed.
Earlier, Lorenzana said that “foreign vessels, I understand, will be armed vessels by other countries.” However, Collin Koh — a researcher who focuses on maritime security in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea — said that the law does not state if “foreign vessels” are armed or not.
“We should focus on enforcing our laws in our own waters, because China will interpret and implement its law the way it pleases,” said Hontiveros.
“We should step up our game by protecting the livelihood and economic interests of our compatriots in the West Philippine Sea,” Hontiveros added.
While she welcomed Lorenzana’s promise the government would have Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy patrols ensure Filipino fisherfolk’s protection in the disputed waters, Hontiveros stressed the DND should stop dismissing the concerns raised by fisherfolk themselves.
“The DND better start listening to our fisherfolk,” said Hontiveros, adding that we should be protectors of our fishermen because China will not protect them. “
“We don’t have the luxury of downplaying any external threat, especially one coming from a country that has, time and again, pillaged our seas and our people,” Hontiveros added.