POSTSCRIPT / January 30, 2020 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Duterte wants VFA ended or amended?

ASSUMING the epicenter of President Duterte’s latest fulmination against the United States is indeed the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), it might be best for him to decide first what he wants to be done with the 20-year-old pact.

Duterte must make up his mind before flashing mixed signals with his Taal-like spewing of a cloud of steam and ash against the US while grumbling about the cancellation of the US visa of his protégé Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.

Does he want the VFA terminated as he had threatened if the visa of “Bato” is not restored in one month, or is he aiming for the revision of the agreement? …Or is there something else he wants from President Trump?

If his targets are onerous provisions of Phl-US security arrangements, he could aim at the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement instead of chipping away at the largely supplemental VFA. Why doesn’t he?

The VFA defines the ground rules to follow when US or Filipino servicemen run afoul of the law in the other country. Abrogation will hurt not only US servicemen, but also Filipino military personnel in the US who will lose privileges granted under the counterpart “VFA-2” that complements the VFA.

Article IX of the VFA says: “This agreement shall remain in force until the expiration of 180 days from the date on which either party gives the other party notice in writing that it desires to terminate the agreement.”

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has indicated that the government has not taken the initial step of termination – which is to send a formal written notice to the US. Was the threat to terminate just a feint?

Malacañang has directed officials of the departments of justice, foreign affairs, and national defense to widen their study to include the impact of termination.

It would help the study group if the President confided his objective for threatening termination if Dela Rosa’s visa is not restored in one month. Duterte has shown reluctance to attend the US-ASEAN summit set March 14 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Last Monday, the group was told to expand its research on “the wisdom” of termination, and how it would affect national security, the economy and the environment, as well as the EDCA.

It appears that the President has not ordered the serving of a termination notice. Guevarra said: “It is my understanding that the President has threatened, but has not given an order, to terminate the VFA. That’s why his office has requested us to study the potential impact.”

The EDCA fills the security void left when the Senate decided in 1991 by a close vote (12-11) not to renew the 1947 Military Bases Agreement when it expired that year. The pullout of US forces, accelerated by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, was completed in 1992.

As the 1987 Constitution (Article XVIII, Section 25) bans foreign military bases, troops or facilities unless allowed by a treaty concurred in by the Senate, the US and the Philippines signed instead in April 2014 the 10-year EDCA to continue US military presence.

Using the EDCA signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Noynoy Aquino, the two partners went around the constitutional ban by agreeing on the rotational (not permanent) assignment of US troops on Philippine (not US) bases.

 ‘Ibon’ belies ‘legacy’ claims of Duterte

CITING government data, research group Ibon Foundation said that the economy is on its third year of slowing growth, the slowest in eight years, which shows that “its market-oriented policies are failing and its claimed economic gains are myths.”

Ibon said the Philippine Statistics Authority reported 5.9-percent annual growth in Gross Domestic Product for 2019, missing government’s revised target of 6-7-percent. Government attributed this to the delayed 2019 budget, the election ban on infrastructure in the first half of 2019 and slowing agriculture due to weather-related factors like El Niño.

But Ibon noted that the economy was already slowing prior to this. From 6.9 percent in 2016, the GDP growth slowed to 6.7 percent in 2017 and 6.2 percent in 2018. The 5.9 percent in 2019 marks the third year of economic slowdown under Duterte.

It is the slowest growth in eight years or since the 3.7 percent in 2011, the group said, “The economic slowdown is really due to the lack of strong foundation in agriculture and Filipino industry – made worse by faulty market-oriented policies.”

Growth in agriculture dropped from 4 percent in 2017 to 0.9 percent in 2018, then slightly increased to 1.5 percent in 2019. Yet government continues its low prioritization of agriculture as reflected in that sector’s 3.5 percent share in the 2020 budget, the lowest since 2004 at 3.3 percent.

Growth in manufacturing drastically declined from 8.4 percent in 2017 to 4.9 percent in 2018 and just 3.8 percent in 2019. “This is because domestic consumption and exports have weakened amid a protracted crisis and increasing protectionism in the global economy,” Ibon said.

Manufacturing is low value-added and overly dependent on foreign capital and technology, and produces for the world market. Ibon said the that government has relied on temporary external factors to drive growth, but these are weakening.

Overseas remittances are growing at a slower rate, decreasing from 5 percent in 2016 to 4.3 percent in 2017 and 3.1 percent in 2018. This rose to 4.6 percent in the first 10 months of 2019 but is not likely to surpass the 2016 growth rate. Growth in exports are also falling from 19.7 percent to 13.4 percent in 2018 and just 3.2 percent in 2019.

Ibon noted: Household consumption registered 7.1 percent growth in 2016 but dropped to 5.9 percent in 2017, 5.6 percent in 2018 and slightly grew to 5.8 percent in 2019. Real, estate, renting and business activities decreased from 8.9 percent growth in 2016 to 7.4 percent in 2017, 4.8 percent in 2018, and further fell to 3.7 percent in 2019.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 30, 2020)

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