POSTSCRIPT / January 28, 2020 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Threats now part of Phl diplomacy?

GOING around town threatening undesirable elements may work in a local Davao-like setting, but will the scare tactic work in the bigger world of foreign relations especially when dealing with superpowers and long-time allies?

President Duterte seems to think so, judging from his giving the United States a one-month ultimatum to issue his protégé Sen. Ronaldo “Bato” dela Rosa a new visitor’s visa otherwise he would terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US.

Threats sometimes do work. See how China President Xi Jinping succeeded in intimidating Duterte with hints of war if he invoked the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague upholding Philippine claims against China’s intrusion into its maritime areas.

Surprised by the President’s flinging threats at the US and Malacañang’s spreading false information, we began to wonder what Duterte wants from President Trump. Is it really the termination of the VFA or something else?

It is not true – not yet anyway — that the Philippine government has initiated the termination of the VFA. Duterte is just threatening to do it and appears to be actually waiting for Washington to react and show its hand.

Under Article IX of the VFA, termination is initiated by the serving of a formal written notice — not by throwing threats, issuing misleading statements or firing off smart-alecky tweets.

After Duterte threatened to terminate the VFA, his subordinates applauded and started (belatedly, it seems) to read the agreement, which expires 180 days after due notice — not 130 days as claimed by the presidential spokesman.

The government has announced that a study is being done by the justice department and the foreign office (assisted by the defense department) on how best to end the 20-year-old VFA. As of this writing, Duterte still has to get/adopt their recommendations.

On a matter as serious as terminating a bilateral security agreement, neither the US nor the Philippines should act officially on the basis alone of media reports. Without a formal notice, a threat is just a bluff.

It is also not true, as presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo opined, that only the privileges of US soldiers would be removed once the VFA is scrapped. He should read the complementary “VFA-2” giving reciprocal privileges to Philippine military personnel assigned in the US.

The twin VFA-2, signed on Oct. 9, 1998, or seven months after VFA-1, grants Philippine military personnel in the US basically similar privileges that US servicemen in the Philippines enjoy – including the hassle-free issuance of visas.

Sen. Dela Rosa, even when he was Philippine National Police chief, was never covered by Article IV of VFA-2 which says: “1. (a) The Embassy of the United States … will issue visas, valid for multiple entries, to … Philippines personnel travelling to (the US) on official duty. In the visa application process, Philippines personnel shall be exempt from completing the non-immigrant visa application form, but shall be subjected to a determination of identity and proper documentation.”

We think President Duterte was ill-advised to use Dela Rosa, who has never been a military officer qualified for a US visa under VFA-2, as a bargaining chip to extract from President Trump whatever he wanted to get by threatening to terminate the VFA.

We also wonder why a top Philippine diplomat is giving wrong information that American visas “fall under” the US Justice Department. Visas are issued by the State Department through US diplomatic/consular offices.

But an alien carrying a validly issued US visa can still be barred at the port of entry by American immigration and customs officers of another agency, the Department of Homeland Security.

We traced the route of US visa control but could not connect the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa to the VFA which never covered his person or office then and now. And why was it “Bato” himself, not the US embassy, that announced its cancellation?

Malacañang may have realized by now the weakness of its playing the “Bato” card. Panelo is now saying that the visa’s cancellation is “just one of the reasons” why the President is threatening to scrap the VFA.

The big question is what does Duterte really want from President Trump, to the extent of using threatening rhetoric on a supposed friend? Is it a personal invitation to the White House?

The VFA is generally similar to the Status of Forces Agreements that the US has with countries where it maintains military forces and facilities. The VFA provision most often criticized in some of the host countries is the article on criminal jurisdiction.

The recurring issue is which government acquires primary and exclusive jurisdiction over US servicemen who run afoul of local laws. Adjustments and accommodations are often made as the criminal cases, covered by the media, publicly go through due process.

If Duterte is serious about correcting onerous provisions in Philippines-US agreements, he could aim at the basic 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement instead of chipping away at the VFA and using Dela Rosa.

Panelo said that scrapping the VFA would not affect the Philippines’ defense capability, claiming that the non-extension of the military bases agreement in 1992 did not have an adverse effect on the country’s self-reliance.

On the contrary, studies have shown that the Philippines’ four decades of heavy dependence on the US for its external security has contributed to stunting the development of its own defense capability, making its military one of the weakest in the region.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 28, 2020)

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