POSTSCRIPT / February 13, 2020 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Filling the void left by VFA abrogation

CAN President Duterte fill in the last two years of his term the void in the country’s defense system that will be created by the termination of the 20-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States?

The President’s spokesman said post-VFA Philippines would bank on self-reliance to boost its capability, then probably consider defense arrangements with other countries that are fair, mutually beneficial and respectful of their security partner.

Which are these “other” countries? There is speculation in wide-awake circles that Duterte served the notice of termination last Tuesday to create an opening for China to squirm in.

But how could China qualify as a trusted security partner when it has shown over the years aggressive and unfriendly intentions by grabbing and militarizing strategic features in Philippine maritime areas?

How could China be considered a true ally after President Xi Jinping hinted of a warlike response when Duterte tried invoking the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that junked China’s exaggerated claim over the West Philippine Sea?

Is China a good neighbor when it drives away Filipinos from their traditional fishing grounds such as Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales and destroys surrounding reefs vital to conserving the ecosystem?

President Duterte has not said anything about the desirability of Beijing as a new security partner. But if he intends to embrace China as such, he should not take the whole country with him in his suicide leap.

The serving of the VFA termination notice, earlier justified by Duterte as a reaction to the canceling of the US visa of his protégé Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, has raised as much ridicule as well-reasoned objections.

Duterte’s indelicate disclosure in a speech Monday that his supposed good friend President Trump tried to dissuade him from going ahead with the threatened VFA termination could just be the colossal blunder that would shorten his stay in Malacañang.

As things are developing, Duterte may have to decline Trump’s invitation for him to join nine other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in a US-ASEAN summit in the gambling capital of Las Vegas, Nevada, next month.

(Just a thought: If Trump invites him for a separate state visit, will the Davao mayor jump and accept the singular honor of exchanging pleasantries with the Great White Father in the Oval Office — and put on hold the VFA’s termination?)

Under Article IX of VFA, the termination notice sent Feb. 11 will take effect after 180 days, during which period the tectonic forces it had triggered could rupture relationships and change the political landscape.

These political tremors are apart from the impact of his delayed reaction to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) breakout in Wuhan City as he was careful not to embarrass China, his vindictive attempt to slay the ABS-CBN broadcast giant, and the economic ashfall of bigtime corruption.

 MDT, EDCA are toothless without VFA

FOREIGN Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. has warned the Senate that the mother 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty itself will be “useless as a prophylactic against foreign aggression” without the VFA and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Many Duterte allies agree with the top diplomat, but the Davao mayor – despite the fact that foreign affairs is not exactly his strong suit – insists on being driven instead by his raw impulses.

The EDCA enabled the allies to go around the Constitution’s ban on foreign bases, facilities and troops by allowing the temporary rotational use by US servicemen of designated Philippine (not US) bases or facilities. But EDCA is useless without VFA.

Similar to Status of Forces Agreements of the US with allies hosting its military personnel, VFA lays down the rules and procedure for trying GIs who run afoul of Philippine laws. Similar rules are provided in a reciprocal “VFA-2” for Filipino personnel assigned to the US. If VFA is abrogated, VFA-2 goes too.

The gray areas of trying misbehaving US soldiers will reappear if VFA is scrapped. Particularly contentious is the issue of criminal jurisdiction, especially when the offender’s commander certifies the GI was on duty when he committed the act.

The MDT, VFA and EDCA may not have reaped a super bonanza, but defenders of US aid swear the pacts have contributed to upgrading Philippine military capability. The other view is that prolonged dependence on the US stunted the growth of the armed forces of the Philippines.

Critics of the desultory flow of US materiel to the AFP underscore not only the unsatisfactory speed, quantity and quality of the goods delivered but also the political strings attached to them.

This has raised charges of US meddling in domestic affairs. Duterte has been very vocal about the condition that US aid, and even purchases of military hardware, must comply with American standards on human rights and other requirements.

Antedating Dela Rosa’s visa cancellation is the case of opposition Sen. Leila de Lima who has been detained for some three years on drug-related charges. Duterte denounces as undue meddling the demand of US senators to have her released and/or her trial sped up.

The impending termination of the VFA has triggered many questions on the necessity and rationality of ending the contract that has complemented MDT and EDCA since the Phl-US Military Bases Agreement expired in 1991.

Cannot VFA just be reviewed and possibly revised if found wanting?

It may be a bit late to explore that option if, as many observers suspect, Duterte is just looking for a plausible excuse for pushing America farther away as he continues to veer left to the communist bloc.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February13, 2020)

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