POSTSCRIPT / February 14, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte to US: If you want VFA, pay for it

PRESIDENT Duterte has gone commercial in justifying his threat to terminate the 21-year-old PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement. Will the sales pitch work?

Addressing air force personnel attending the turnover Friday at the Clark airfield in Pampanga of new air assets, Duterte accused Washington of taking “so much from us” while failing to pay a fair recompense to its long-time friend and ally. He did not give a figure.

He recalled once telling then US President Trump, who many Filipinos assume is his friend, that the Philippines needed US guided “rockets” (missiles?) for which he said the country was willing to pay, “but until now, it’s still in the air.”

“I would like to put on a notice if there is an American agent here,” he said, glancing around, “that from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement done? You have to pay. It’s a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free.”

We were waiting for applause from the sparse crowd, but we heard none.

He continued, “After all, when the war breaks out, we all pay. You, kami (us), we are nearest to the garrison where there are a lot of arsenals of the Chinese armed forces.”

He could have skipped mentioning a Chinese garrison and arsenals. That he did so anyway was not surprising, considering the battering he has been getting in media and private conversations for his perceived partiality to China.

We asked media colleague Nonnie Pelayo what “air assets” were turned over to the armed forces. He replied, “What were shown to Duterte were: one former US Marines C-130H, six former Polish Sikorsky S70i Blackhawk Utility Helicopters, six brand-new that the Philippines bought, A-29B ‘Super Tucano’ trainer-ground attack aircraft, six Hermes 900 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and four Hermes 450 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The government bought the Tucanos from Brazil. The C-130 was donated by the US.”

Duterte himself mentioned after asking somebody off-mike that 32 new Blackhawks are to be delivered over several years to replace old Huey choppers that are so tired that they just fall from the clouds without notice.

Duterte also said: “I’m walking on a tight rope actually, I cannot afford to be brave in the mouth against China because we are avoiding any confrontation that would lead to something which we can hardly afford, at least not at this time.”

He claimed to be a “friend” of both China and the US, although it has been obvious that he broke away from Uncle Sam as soon as he became president and snuggled into the waiting embrace of Beijing after he was promised massive aid, loans and grants.

“But (referring to the US) what I don’t like is iyong para kang bata na they promise you — ganoon iyan e, magpunta iyong mga top brass nila (it’s like that, their top brass come around). This group will promise you, and once they take off, they forget all about it,” he said.

Duterte’s “pay up” spiel calls to mind a demand of then-President Marcos in 1986 that the bases agreement be renegotiated. He accused Washington of reneging on a promised $900 million in US aid over a period of years for the use of military facilities in the Philippines.

One difference is that while Marcos had the bases — including Clark, Subic, and John Hay — to lease out, Duterte has none to offer.

What Duterte is peddling is just the VFA, a standard Status of Forces contract laying down the rules governing the reciprocal presence of military personnel of the parties in the territories of the other party.

He may not be aware of it but Duterte is also selling the nation’s soul. His spineless stance that he displays every chance he gets has started to infect his subordinates. Listen to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana rationalizing:

“The main reason why we did not want to participate in the exercises in the SCS with the US and the allies is because we didn’t have the equipment to match what they were doing…. Firstly, it’s not to antagonize China because China is watching us here and a lot of things could be done to us by the Chinese government if they are antagonized.”

When Trump was told that his friend in Manila was demanding 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so he would not terminate the VFA, he said the US could let go of the VFA and save the money. (At $20 per dose, the vaccines Duterte was demanding would cost $400 million.)

The US bases had to be closed after the expiration in 1991 of the bases agreement, followed by the automatic application of the constitutional ban on foreign bases, facilities and military forces unless allowed by a treaty ratified by both the Philippines and the other country.

Until now there is no mutually ratified bases treaty as required by the Constitution. The VFA, which has not been ratified by the US Senate, is a doubtful legal justification for foreign bases even if President Biden would come bearing 200 million doses of vaccines.

The VFA is the core subject of bilateral talks, but depending on Duterte’s frame of mind, the negotiations could dive deeper and wander wider and – in a worst-case turn of events — even lead to the abrogation of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty itself.

The Visiting Forces Agreement cannot be reviewed or revised in isolation. The talks on how to adapt the 21-year-old contract to the realities of the present will impinge on the gamut of bilateral relations — and even the very tenure of Duterte.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 14, 2021)

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