POSTSCRIPT / February 2, 1999 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Erap also a spokesman of US on VFA issues?

IT seems President Estrada is not only the spokesman of the Marcoses but also of the United States on defense matters.

The President said in effect the other day that the US would become the country’s superpower partner in stopping Chinese intrusion in the Spratlys if the Senate approves the pending Visiting Forces Agreement with the US.

It is naive for Mr. Estrada to assume that. He should wait for the US itself to say it, or preferably to formally write down the assurance that ratification of the VFA would prompt it to act on the Chinese “creeping invasion” of Philippines-claimed islets in the Spratlys.

Unfortunately for him and all of us, the US is not ready or willing to say that.

* * *

WASHINGTON refuses to acknowledge the VFA as a treaty requiring US Senate ratification.

This American position is the root of the new difficulties that Malacañang has encountered in its campaign to have the Philippine Senate concur with the VFA.

Before this new debate on whether the VFA is a treaty or an executive agreement, the Palace already had the numbers—at least two-thirds or 16 votes in the 24-member Senate—for concurrence.

The VFA was submitted to the Senate on the belief that it is a treaty. But when the US balked at submitting it to its own Senate for concurrence, Malacañang had to make a fast downscaling.

Toeing the American line, Malacañang is now saying the VFA is just an executive agreement (which does not require ratification), but is submitting it for Senate approval nonetheless for, huh, transparency’s sake.

As a result, some senators who were ready to accommodate the Palace have become self-conscious on the matter of approving the VFA.

* * *

WE still have a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US, but the US continues to be evasive about responding militarily and promptly in the event of aggression or an attack on any part of the Philippines.

That pact is a treaty formally ratified by the US Senate. It is not a “mere” executive agreement like the VFA, yet the US still reserves the right to determine in what manner it would act if the Philippines were invaded.

With that, how can President Estrada now confidently announce that the US would become a partner in pushing the creeping invasion in the Mischief area if the VFA—regarded by the US as a mere agreement or a notch lower than a treaty—is ratified?

* * *

A READING of the VFA text confirms suspicions that it is not enough to bind the US to defend us if attacked or if any part of our sovereign territory is violated by, for instance, China.

No amount of optimistic exhortation from President Estrada will move the US to defend us merely on the basis of the VFA. More so if it would mean tangling with China.

The VFA is nothing but a definition of the status of US forces when they enter the country for such things as joint military exercises. It does not re-commit the US to some mutual defense arrangement.

Mutual defense is embodied in the MDT signed in 1951. It is supposed to be still in force despite the expiration in 1991 and non-renewal of the RP-US military bases agreement.

The situation changed with the removal of US bases. Without its bases that were natural targets in an attack, the US is not necessarily compelled to forthwith defend the country in case of an invasion. It can take its own sweet time consonant with its congressional processes.

* * *

WE actually weakened our bargaining position in the VFA talks when our officials went around town jumping up and down and screaming about a “creeping invasion” by China.

Without our telling them, the US knows exactly the status of our defense capability. They know very well that it is zero.

In short, the US knows we have no choice but to lean on it if we want any semblance of national defense. In discussing mutual arrangements such as the VFA, the US knows that we cannot impose conditions that look ridiculous to them. And by ridiculous is meant anything that is not to their interest.

The text of the VFA as submitted to the Senate is the final version. To the US, it is either we take it or leave it. They won’t change a word on it.

The government tried to make the VFA palatable by drawing up a VFA-2, a watered-down counter-copy of the preferential treatment of visiting American servicemen and related personnel, except that VFA-2 refers to the treatment of Filipino military personnel when they visit the US.

But since we don’t hold joint military exercises in the US and only a handful of Filipino military men are sent to America, there is serious imbalance in the tradeoff.

* * *

WE should pursue the idea of having a Filipino contingent visit Mischief. Theoretically, if Mischief is truly ours, and we say it is, there should be no problem to our setting foot on the reef and inspecting the structures built there by the Chinese.

But even with our title on Mischief being disputed by Beijing, we should be able to visit the place based on China’s assurances that the structures there are non-military and intended as haven for fishermen.

A joint visit by Filipino and Chinese officials, and probably neutral third parties, should clear up a few crucial points and lay the basis for talks for the amicable settling of the dispute.

The Philippines swallows its national pride and weakens its position by asking permission to visit Mischief, but that’s the price we have to pay for neglecting to build our own physical presence on Mischief.

Occupation has given the Chinese 90 to our 10 measly points.

* * *

MEANTIME, the town is awaiting with bated breath the impending takeover by another favored group of the tubong lugaw contract for the baggage cart and porterage service at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the pay parking concession.

The contract reportedly fetches P15 million a year for the lucky concessionaire, who merely has to come in, take over the carts donated by an electronic product advertiser and rent them out at $1 apiece.

As for the parking area, the concessionaire merely cleans the place, brings in his own people and starts collecting parking fees.

The juicy airport contract was taken from Gualberto Lumauig, spokesman of the Lakas-NUCD, in the aftermath of the presidential elections that Lakas lost.

* * *

INTEREST in the concessions is whetted by reports that the son of a high Malacañang official and a businessmen friend fronting for him were set to take over despite President Estrada’s booming promise that “walang kaibigan, walang kamaganak, et cetera…”

The same son is also being mentioned as cornering the grains importation deals at the National Food Authority. The usual favored importers are reportedly complaining that they had been elbowed out.

Not only that. The same son reportedly wants to consolidate the racket by including sugar among the items that the NFA would import under his direction.

With a shortage of coffee also being forecast after the suspicious drop in the supply of rice and sugar (conveniently blamed on poor El Niño), will coffee be included in the import list?

* * *

SAYANG! Fernando Poe Jr., we honest think, should have been given a chance to try his hand at confidence building in Muslim Mindanao.

Saying that one actor in government is enough, President Estrada has shot down suggestions that his bosom friend be sent to Moroland to work out something. FPJ has been quoted that he was ready to help if the President would ask him.

We don’t have in mind FPJ being a negotiator. He could just be a presidential emissary to make him flexible.

As for Robin Padilla, who was also suggested as a partner of FPJ in dealing with the Muslims, we think he better stay home and grow up first. Robin embraced Islam while serving time on gun charges, but that does not automatically make him an ideal presidential emissary to troublesome Muslims.

* * *

TALKING of movie personalities, this corner welcomes news that Kris Aquino, youngest child of the late Ninoy and Cory Aquino, has left action star Phillip Salvador with their son Joshua to try salvaging the rest of her life. She will be 28 on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14.

It seems that prayer played a crucial part in pricking the conscience of Kris and opening her eyes about her relationship with Phillip, 50, who is married and has children in the US, aside from another child by another woman in Pampanga.

Cory is not yet commenting extensively on Kris’ decision. We can imagine that she is mostly on her knees lately, praying for Kris’ finally and fully seeing the light.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 2, 1999)

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