Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez on Friday said an improved and “strengthened" version of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US that allows Filipino and American soldiers to conduct military training and exercises was awaiting approval by President Rodrigo Duterte more than a year after he ordered its termination.
Romualdez said President Duterte would decide anytime on whether Manila would renew the VFA following weeks of negotiation with Washington officials.
"I know there has been improvement, a lot of time spent by both our countries, our panels on some of the things they want to improve in that agreement. It's now in the Office of the President and I expect it to come out anytime now," Romualdez said in a media briefing.
"We are very confident that it will go through," the envoy added.
Duterte last year ordered the abrogation of the VFA after the US, a long-time Philippine defense and treaty ally, revoked the visa of his close ally and former national police chief and now senator Ronald Dela Rosa.
US officials did not cite a specific reason why Dela Rosa's visa was cancelled, but many speculated it was due to his involvement in Duterte's violent war on drugs.
Manila sent an official letter of termination of the VFA to the US on Feb. 11, 2020.
In November 2020, the President suspended the termination of the agreement amid lingering tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea.
For his part, US Embassy Chargè d' Affaires John Law said there were very specific proposals on how to clarify and strengthen the VFA's implementation that were discussed by both sides.
"Over a series of weeks we had very productive, very good conversations between representatives from both governments," he said.
According to Law, the VFA was a fundamental part to making the MDT successful.
"We are committed to the success of our alliance with the Philippines and that commitment is going to remain strong," he said.
US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) Commander, General Kenneth Wilsbach, during a news conference said, replying to a question, “I’m quite confident that between the Government of the Philippines and the State Department from the United States, we’ll get to some agreement in the future.”
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the United Kingdom's Carrier Strike Group's upcoming visit to Manila would demonstrate freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Lorenzana made this comment in an online conference with British Ambassador Daniel Pruce where several issues of mutual concern were discussed, Defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said in a statement Friday.
"Secretary Lorenzana welcomed the CSG as well as the port visit to Manila of its component vessel, which will demonstrate freedom of navigation in the SCS and promote closer bilateral relations between the Philippines and the UK," he added.
The UK's CSG is composed of the Royal Navy's brand-new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, two Type 45 destroyers, HMS Diamond and HMS Defender, Type 23 frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, and an Astute-class submarine along with two replenishment ships.
Pruce reiterated the UK’s position on the SCS issue with an emphasis that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea must take precedence, as well as the UK’s readiness to provide support in related capacity-building efforts.
"Secretary Lorenzana and Ambassador Pruce also took up other matters concerning Philippines-UK defense cooperation, such as acquisition projects, counter-terrorism, and the establishment of a resident defense attaché post in the territory of the other," Andolong said.
The Philippines and the UK will be convening the 2nd Joint Defense Committee Meeting this month.
In related developments, the defense chiefs of the Philippines and Japan have agreed to further strengthen cooperation in all areas, including on freedom of navigation.
Lorenzana and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi made this commitment during a video conference on Wednesday.
The two officials also discussed various regional security issues, including the situation in Southeast Asia, Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS) and East China Sea (ECS).
Expressing grave concern over unilateral actions in the SCS/WPS and ECS, both Lorenzana and Kishi underscored the need for all parties to uphold the principles of freedom of navigation and to exercise self-restraint in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.