MANILA — Days after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the transmittal to the United States the Philippines’ formal notification to terminate the 22-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. signed the notice of termination, which the US Embassy received on Monday.
The VFA is officially terminated 180 days after the US received the notice from the DFA, even without President Duterte’s signature, the law said.
Earlier after the President’s order reached the DFA, through Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Secretary Locsin during the hearing by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations warned that the revocation of the VFA might have a “negative” impact on the Philippines.
Locsin said that, even if the Philippines has the prerogative to end the VFA anytime, continuing it would be more beneficial than terminating it, citing the “robust economic relations between the two countries.”
On the other hand, Locsin admitted that there are “irritants” in the agreement that need to be addressed. He assured lawmakers that the DFA has already taken steps to clarify with the US certain items pertaining to the VFA to avoid any issues in the implementation of the agreement.
Locsin also took a swipe at US Senators Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin for “insulting the basic aspect” of the country’s sovereignty, in connection with the US lawmakers’ requests for the Philippine government to release Senator Leila de Lima.
De Lima has been in jail since February 2017 on charges that she benefitted from the illegal drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison when she was still the justice secretary under the Aquino administration.
Locsin said the VFA is the “logical target” when the country’s sovereign justice system was disrespected by the US lawmakers.
“When US senators demean the Philippine justice system, which is the mirror image of the US, by demanding the release of an accused, properly charged by two rulings of our Supreme Court, it insulted the most basic aspect of sovereignty — the monopoly on justice within its territory,” he said.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, in a talk with the media, earlier said that Duterte’s terminating the VFA was a “studied” and “tactical” decision. He also said Duterte had no choice but scrap the VFA because of the “brazen interference” and “disrespect” of the US Senate against the Philippines’ judicial system.
Panelo, in a recent press briefing after the DFA sent the notice to the US, said the intrusion of US executive and legislative branches in the Philippines’ domestic issues “offended” the President, compelling the latter to take a drastic move against Washington by terminating the VFA.
In a separate statement, Locsin himself said US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission John Law has received the notice. “The Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of the United States has received the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement. As a diplomatic courtesy there will be no further factual announcements following this self-explanatory development,” he said.
The VFA, established in 1999, provides a framework for defense forces cooperation and allows joint exercises between the two states. On Monday, the US Department of State Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper said the VFA would be part of the discussions during the two nations’ Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in March.
The US Embassy in Manila described the move as a “serious step with significant implication for the US-Philippines alliance”. In a statement, it said it will “carefully consider” how best to move forward to advance Manila and Washington’s shared interests.
Panelo further said that Duterte is now open to VFA with other countries instead. “The President is always saying, if we have to deal with other countries, we have to deal with equality and fairness. It should not be one-sided. That’s what he’s always saying,” he added.
But for now, the President is focused on strengthening the country’s own defense capabilities, Panelo said. “The President said it’s about time we rely on our own resources, we have to strengthen our own capability as a country relative to the defense of our land. That’s the President’s main concern. Because the more we rely on other countries, we’re weakening our capability,” he said.
“From the way he talks, let’s do it on our own. We will not rely on other countries in the meantime. But of course, if the agreement would benefit us, I’m sure we will be open,” Panelo added.
Inked by the Philippines and the US on Feb. 10, 1998, the VFA serves as an agreement that stipulates how American forces should be treated in the Philippines.
The agreement exempts US troops from passport and visa regulations, and also allows them to use their permits and licenses in the Philippines.
Washington also retains jurisdiction over US military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless the offenses are punishable in the host country.
The US Embassy said that, despite the VFA termination, the US will remain committed to the “friendship between our two peoples. Our two countries enjoy a warm relationship, deeply rooted in history. We remain committed to the friendship between our two peoples,” it said.