POSTSCRIPT / February 16, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Senate can help Duterte save face

THE SENATE could provide President Duterte a face-saving excuse – if he wants one — to step back from the 180-day countdown that he triggered on Feb. 11 for the termination of the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement.

A day after his indiscreet disclosure that President Trump had failed to convince him not to proceed with the threatened termination, Duterte served notice on Tuesday that Manila was abrogating the 20-year-old pact.

But Trump’s business-like reaction was something the Davao mayor appears not to have anticipated.

Instead of scrambling to ask Duterte to reconsider, Trump told the media that termination was “fine,” and in fact he sort of welcomed the impending disengagement as, he said, it would save Americans millions in VFA-related expenses.

This year, the US reportedly plans to spend over $200 million (about P10 billion) on aircraft, training, equipment and infrastructure for the Philippine armed forces. More than $45 million (about P2 billion) is in the pipeline as foreign military financing. Was Trump referring to these funds as among possible savings?

With the US President’s nonchalance, Duterte’s termination notice hit the ground with a thud. His move looked like a colossal blunder, a miscalculation of how Trump plays his cards.

Luckily there is still the Senate where Duterte’s loyalists could salvage the embarrassing situation – if he wants a way out. The senators could stage a public hearing to draw out the dominant sentiment that termination is not in the best interest of the nation.

As the Senate asserts its role of concurring with international agreements entered into by the Executive, the Secretary of Justice could also render a legal opinion, binding until set aside by a competent court, that the President needs Senate concurrence not only to enter into an agreement but also to exit from it.

If there is still doubt, the usual lawyer for hire could go to the Supreme Court, where the majority could rule that indeed the President needs Senate concurrence to terminate the VFA regardless of how determined Duterte wants to trash it.

Duterte the statesman could then bow to the Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution requires him to seek Senate concurrence. The termination notice is withdrawn and the 180-day countdown stops.

Elsewhere, if the drama has to play on, some advocates could agitate for a review of the VFA to remove its “onerous” provisions that make a mockery of Philippine sovereignty, et cetera.

If the nationalistic mood catches on, the review could cover other contracts, including the mother 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that plugged security holes left gaping when the Military Bases Agreement expired in 1991.

All that, of course, will be pure speculation if Duterte sticks to his decision to terminate the VFA and looks for a way during the two years left for him to upgrade the security capability of the Philippines.

 Who are Duterte’s foreign affairs advisers?

WATCHING Duterte dabbling in power diplomacy with worrisome consequences, one is wont to ask who is(are) his main adviser(s) in foreign relations. Or is he hacking it all by his lonesome?

One would think foremost among his advisers should be Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. But Duterte sometimes ignores the well-studied counsel that the top diplomat dispenses in social media, public forums and presumably also discusses with the President.

On the termination of the VFA, for instance, Locsin publicly proposed that instead of its being abrogated outright, the agreement could be reviewed and possibly revised to remove the objectionable parts.

But as Locsin spoke of reviewing it, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo was telling the media in Malacañang that the President has already ordered his Executive Secretary to instruct Locsin to go ahead and send the formal notice.

In another bizarre scene later, Duterte disclosed in a speech that Trump and others were trying to convince him not to terminate the VFA, but that he ignored them. We got the impression that back-channels had informed Duterte of Trump’s alleged frame of mind.

At one point Panelo also hinted that Trump and Duterte were going to talk, but the supposed call apparently never pushed through. Neither was it made clear who was to initiate the conversation.

If Panelo were a media leg man, he could get into trouble the reporter for whom he is gathering information. But as spokesman of the President, what he relays to the press — although hearsay — cannot be ignored.

The VFA, ratified by the Senate in 1999, lays the ground rules for the conduct of US military personnel temporarily assigned in the Philippines. It also serves as legal basis for joint Phl-US military exercises and of GIs helping in disaster rescue and relief operations.

The agreement comes with a reciprocal “VFA-2” that applies to Filipino military personnel assigned with similar privileges in the US. If VFA is terminated, VFA-2 goes with it.

Panelo and other officials talk of self-reliance and the Philippines’ beefing up its military capability, but the spending requirements of such upgrading is not reflected in the budget. This year, the bulk of the armed forces budget goes to personnel costs and pensions.

On the other hand, the US reportedly plans to spend this year over $200 million (about P10 billion) on aircraft, training, equipment and infrastructure for the Philippine armed forces. More than $45 million (about P2 billion) is in the pipeline as foreign military financing. What will happen to these funds if the VFA is terminated?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 16, 2020)

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