“The President’s move is significant.”
The pestering issue whether to abrogate our Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States or not has been finally laid to rest. In the words of the President himself, it was all because of the 3 million doses of the Moderna vaccine donated by the US. The vaccines are of course, important as many Filipino lives will be saved because of it. But I would have wished that it was because of the strategic importance of the VFA to our national security that the decision was finally made to keep the agreement.
With the matter finally settled, many parts of the agreement that were suspended for a few years can now move forward. The yearly Balikatan joint exercises which are so important to our military personnel can go on as well as the prepositioning of military equipment in the country.
No one in this country is perhaps more satisfied than Secretary Delfin Lorenzana of the Defense Department who all this time fought hard to keep the agreement. Before the end of the Aquino administration, in 2016, there were efforts to look for areas where facilities could be set up ostensibly for US military personnel who will be assigned here on rotational basis. Whether the President will allow this to push through will of course be something to watch for. Considering the thinking of President Duterte, I would think that both sides will calibrate this carefully and not proceed with haste.
The move of the President certainly is significant since the US has now the incentive to provide us with much needed up-to-date arms like air, sea and other state-of-the art surveillance assets. Assistance during natural calamities will now also be readily available and forthcoming when needed. That simple pronouncement of the President withdrawing his threat to abrogate the VFA indeed opened up a lot of avenues for us not available before the trip of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to this country.
But was the President’s decision to reaffirm the VFA a complete turnaround from his views with regards to our military alliance with the US? Let us hope so. As we all know by now, the President does not believe that the United States will not go to war for the Philippines. This is notwithstanding that both countries being treaty allies are bound to come to the defense of each other in case of military hostilities. In recent weeks, the US Secretary of State said, in no uncertain terms, that an attack on any Philippine ship or aircraft in the South China Sea will trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty. That statement was one of the strongest statements by the US government in years. There is no doubt that our geographic location is vital to the overall defense posture of the US in the western Pacific. This is because our country stands in the way of China having unhindered access to the vast Pacific Ocean which is something China has always wanted. China’s navy is growing by leaps and bounds and cannot be bottled up in the South China Sea forever.
The SCS is too small for China’s growing blue water navy and needs the Pacific Ocean to be able to project its power. Given the current state of our defense readiness, we can also benefit from our VFA with the US. We have to bear in mind that the Chinese are now within spitting distance from our main island of Luzon having taken over our Scarborough Shoal which should be disconcerting to all Filipinos.
I would like to think that part of the reason why President Duterte did an about face is that after all that he has done to accommodate China, there was never a meaningful reciprocal response that came from China. But the VFA should not alter the current relationship with China. We simply have to assert our interests more forcefully. This is basically dictated by our geographic proximity to China and our long history of cultural and economic contacts. It’s the right thing to do. But the relationship must be based on mutual respect for both countries’ territorial integrity.
It cannot be that China continues to covet part of our territory and expect us to simply acquiesce without fighting and defending our legitimate interests. As a blooming super power, China must earn its rightful place in the community of nations as a respected power and act within the bounds of international law. If China can do that, then small nations like us will not need VFAs in order to protect itself. But that is probably asking China a lot considering that it is locked in a contest with the US on who should be the preeminent country on earth.