What happens now to the VFA?

"What's clear now is that Duterte wants to use the VFA and EDCA as bargaining chips to get the maximum benefit from American military presence in the country."


Was it a rash judgment in the first place, a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite one's face?

Last Monday (June 15), Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said President Rodrigo Duterte had decided to once again extend the suspension of the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) as the Chief Executive deems it proper to further study its provisions.

Following this, the United States Embassy in Manila said: "We welcome the Government of the Philippines’ decision to again suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Our alliance continues to contribute not only to the security of our two nations, but also strengthens the rules-based order that benefits all nations in the Indo-Pacific.”

Duterte terminated the VFA in February 2020 in a pique over the US refusal to renew the visa of former top cop and now Sen. Ronald de la Rosa, the chief implementor of his bloody war on drugs.

The process of VFA termination, however, was held off in June 2020 and a second time in November 2020, with officials from the two countries holding discussions to iron out differences.

The VFA, which took effect in 1999, provides the legal framework for the treatment of US military personnel visiting the Philippines for military exercises and humanitarian work. One provision says they should be tried only in a Philippine court if they commit a crime and, if found guilty, should be confined in a Philippine jail.

Besides the VFA, Manila and Washington have also signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which provides for the stationing of US troops in five agreed locations in the country on a rotational basis without rental or similar fees. These agreed locations are: Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro. This supplemental agreement to the VFA allows US forces to preposition and store defense material, equipment, and supplies, but not nuclear weapons, which is prohibited under our Constitution. 
 The overall security cooperation between the two countries, of course, is governed by the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed in 1951, under which they are bound to defend each other in the event of an armed attack by a hostile party.

Under the Biden administration, the Defense and State departments insist they’re still working to recast the relationship. “We will continue to look for ways to further strengthen and advance security cooperation that addresses shared security challenges and respects human rights,” according to a Pentagon spokesman. “Our respective officials are engaged in open dialogue, which is essential to maintaining the strength of any alliance.”

A State Department spokesperson, meanwhile, did not directly address what progress has been made in the talks, but said U.S. and Philippine representatives have been in regular consultation over the past few months. “The U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to both of our countries’ security,” the spokesperson said.

A senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation focused on the Indo-Pacific, Derek Grossman, believes that Duterte should allow both the VFA and EDCA to stay: “Given the fact that it feels like it’s facing more pressure from China over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, it makes sense for the Philippines not to backtrack on its alliance with the U.S. By getting rid of the VFA, you would eliminate the U.S. military’s ability to go easily in and out of the Philippines.”

That's not exactly what Beijing wants to hear, to be sure.

What's clear now is that Duterte wants to use the VFA and EDCA as bargaining chips to get the maximum benefit from American military presence in the country.

In one of his weekly press conferences, Duterte said the US should give the Philippines something in return: "You want the Visiting Forces Agreement done? Well, you have to pay. It’s a shared responsibility. But your share of responsibility does not come free because after all, when war breaks out, we all pay. We’re nearest to the garrison there, a lot of arsenals of the Chinese armed forces. I hope that the Americans would take notice of that.”

Later, Duterte once again told the Americans that he would abrogate the VFA if they are not serious about their commitments to the Philippines concerning the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

Last February, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. emphasized that Manila has the right to "expect some measure of lethal parity" in its Mutual Defense Treaty with the US. 
 Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, for his part, pointed out: “I think (that) in a way, we’re always getting the short end of the stick in getting assistance from our friends in the USA.”

The US needs the VFA and EDCA as part of its containment strategy against China in this part of the world. At the same time, the Philippines needs security cooperation with the US so it can proceed with the modernization of its armed forces and achieve a credible defense posture with adequate land, sea and air defense capabilities.

At this point, I don't think our defense and foreign affairs departments want the country to completely sever its security cooperation with Washington. And what do most Filipinos about this think given our next-door neighbor's aggressive island-building in the South China Sea?

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Topics: Ernesto Hilario , Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. , President Rodrigo Duterte , Visiting Forces Agreement , VFA
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