With the extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States “on deck” and on the table, President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday night wants to talk to ranking US officials to clarify the longtime ally’s stand and role in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.
This developed as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Southeast Asia later this month, the Pentagon said, a trip which starts on July 23 and will include stops in the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, according to the US embassy in Hanoi.
In his weekly televised briefing, Duterte referred to the VFA after cutting Presidential Chief Legal Adviser Salvador Panelo’s comments on former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, one of the President’s staunch critics (see related story below – Editors).
“You know, this Visiting Forces Agreement, its extension is on deck, on the table. Now, I just want to talk to some people in Washington, be it from the Office of the President or the State Department or the Defense Department,” Duterte said.
The President said the Palace is “still investigating it” but it was unclear if he meant the VFA or Del Rosario, who as the top envoy of the previous Aquino administration helped the country reach a landmark victory over China in an international court over the latter’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, including portions of the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte will most likely get that chance to speak to a high-ranking US official in Austin, President Joe Biden’s defense chief.
On the visit, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said: "Secretary Austin's visit will demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration places on Southeast Asia and on ASEAN as an essential part of the Indo-Pacific's architecture," referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.
"This trip will underscore the enduring US commitment to the region, and our interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region and promoting ASEAN centrality," the embassy said in a Facebook post.
The report coincided with President Duterte on Monday saying the mended relationship between the Philippines and China had made it “very easy” to ask Chinese ships to leave Philippine waters. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)
Duterte’s statement came after Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, in a meeting held in Davao City on Monday night, reported that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) recently drove away a Chinese naval warship spotted sailing within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
During the meeting, Roque told Duterte that the Chinese warship left the Philippine waters because of the country’s improved ties with China.
“If I may add, it includes our good relationship right now with China that they do not want to be disturbed,” Roque continued after President Rodrigo Duterte questioned Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana about why Chinese vessels are now so easily pushed off the West Philippine Sea.
“Are they avoiding any confrontation or is it a good will?” was Duterte’s question.
Lorenzana explained that it could be because the Chinese vessels were being too close to Palawan, which is not contested, and that maybe China did not want any incident involving their naval ships while the Philippines was using civilian ships.
Duterte then expressed that not sending warships is part of diplomacy.
The United States under President Joe Biden is looking to reinforce the need for a US role in a region where China has sizable influence as the dominant trade partner, but testy relationships as a result of its military activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Austin has been keen to preserve decades-old military ties with the Philippines, a defense treaty partner, after repeated threats to downgrade the alliance by its largely pro-China Duterte, whose term ends next year.
The PGC earlier reported that BRP Cabra on July 13 spotted a naval warship carrying a Chinese flag at Marie Louise Bank, which is 147 nautical miles from El Nido, Palawan.
The vessel monitored in Marie Louise Bank was Chinese Navy Warship 189, the PCG said.
The Chinese warship left the Philippines’ EEZ after the PCG vessel sent a radio challenge.
Duterte was elated that it was now easier for the PCG to ask Chinese ships to leave Philippine waters sans trouble. He also expressed appreciation to the Chinese vessels’ gesture of “goodwill”.
The PCG on April 27 also drove away seven alleged Chinese maritime militia ships that were seen “nested or in stationary liner formation” at the shoal located 130 nautical miles west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan and east of Ayungin Shoal.
Meanwhile, Senator Francis Pangilinan cited the need for a higher budget to provide much-needed support for patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
Pangilinan said this would also ensure protection of our fishermen and territorial waters.
Noting that the PCG’s budget for 2021 was lower than its 2020 budget, Pangilinan said that giving support to the PCG signifies deeper commitment to assert our claim over the West Philippine Sea.
“Imagine, 80 percent of our territory is water, but we only have a measly budget to protect this.
Supporting the Coast Guard means supporting our stand on the West Philippine Sea,” Pangilinan said.
PCG’s P13.2 million budget for 2021 is 13 percent lower than its 2020 budget of P15.22 million.
Pangilinan commits to supporting higher budget allocation for the PCG in the upcoming budget deliberations for 2022.
At the same time, Sen. Risa Hontiveros warned of increased incidents of Chinese cyberespionage ahead of the 2022 national and local elections.
She cautioned that the government of China might heavily influence the upcoming elections through cyberespionage campaigns against the Philippines.
“I would not be surprised if they meddle in our elections," said Hontiveros.
She said it was clear that China would do everything to grab our seas and territories in the
The senator’s warning also comes after cybersecurity firm Kaspersky unveiled that there is a “rare, wide-scale advanced persistent threat” by Chinese “actors” that gather geopolitical and economic intelligence in Asia and Africa.
The firm added that some 1,400 users in the Philippines, including government entities, have fallen victim to spear-phishing emails that contain malicious documents.
“A modus is the obvious making of app like Zoom which are being used in meetings and online classes during this pandemic. Users are unaware that their data is being robbed," she said.