POSTSCRIPT / February 16, 2021 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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What does Duterte really want from US?

WHAT exactly does President Duterte want from Washington, aside from the “guided rockets” and 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, for him to withdraw his notice terminating the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement?

First off, who speaks for the Philippines on VFA matters? Is it only President Duterte – or is it a chorus that includes his spokesman Harry Roque, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr., and the Mayor’s favorite senator?

Secondly, do the two allies want to continue with the VFA that was signed in 1998 and came into force in 1999 when the Philippines ratified it? (The US regards it as an executive agreement that does not require ratification by its Senate.)

Since the US has not sent its own notice of termination, effective 180 days after notice as stipulated in the contract, Washington is presumed to still want to keep the VFA. It may just come in handy considering the turbulent security weather in the Indo-Pacific area.

On the Philippines side, Duterte sent last year a termination notice whose deadline had been extended twice — first to force revalidation of the US visa of his protégé former PNP chief (now senator) Bato dela Rosa, and, second, to demand delivery of 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

The US embassy has reissued Dela Rosa’s visa, but on the demand for vaccines, then President Trump waved it off and said something about the US being able to save money by not paying what looked like a ransom for the VFA.

Now Duterte is insisting that the US “pay up!” in a transactional tone that has embarrassed many Filipinos not used to seeing their president talk like an extortionist.

On whether the Philippines wants to keep the VFA, before Locsin could tweet a reaction, Lorenzana beat him to it, saying in a TV interview: “We at the defense department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue.”

It was not clear if Lorenzana was talking for the government, especially with Duterte having just said he wanted the US to pay for being able to use the VFA.

If Duterte wants the VFA terminated, there is no point negotiating. He could just go ahead and scrap the VFA 180 days after notice, then proceed to pivot away from Uncle Sam unless the latter is willing and ready to invest in a Duterte type of relationship.

But that is jumping to a premature conclusion. A new US president sits in the Oval Office and early signals point to his being at least attentive to little brown Americans in the American continent and across the Pacific.

As we said here last Sunday, the VFA 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 stay of Duterte in power.

While current talks revolve around the VFA, “depending on Duterte’s frame of mind, the negotiations could dive deeper and wander wider” and open for review even the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement supplementing the VFA.

The EDCA allows the US to send troops to the Philippines for extended periods on rotation and to operate facilities on Philippine bases, one way of going around the constitutional ban on permanent foreign bases.

The need for the VFA and the EDCA arose when the Bases Agreement, which was also written to help carry out MDT objectives, expired in 1991 and the constitutional ban on foreign bases, facilities and troops automatically took effect.

For reference, Article XVIII (Transitory Provisions) says: “Section 25. After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning military bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

Duterte has emerged as the fulcrum on which Fil-Am relations will move. As he has generated a political climate that is beginning to feel for many people like one-man rule, what he says generally goes. An effective political opposition is hardly felt.

So we go back to the question asked in the head of this column: What does Duterte really want? He has to say what, so everybody knows what must or could be done.

If he wants the US armed forces out, he can go ahead with his VFA notice of termination. He can drop all pretense, stamp out US military presence and open the country to another power that is already within the walls anyway.

That scenario leads us to another question raised earlier: Between Duterte and the AFP, who controls whom? Section 3 of Article II says “the Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State,” but does not answer the question.

The saner assumption is that Duterte simply wants the VFA revised to suit his immediate requirements and not as prelude to kicking Uncle Sam out of the kulambo.

Duterte’s negotiating team could find many ways to water down the VFA’s pro-US bias, and still be able to collect what the boss wants as payment.

We hope they have learned the lesson of Ferdinand Marcos’ pushing too hard and finding himself being pushed out to fall, tubes and all, from his throne of bayonets.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 16, 2021)

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