POSTSCRIPT / June 17, 2021 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Don’t renegotiate VFA in isolation

PRESIDENT Duterte has said that awarding public projects to the highest bidder or to the contractor who submits the best-looking offer often breeds corruption and will not always mean securing the best terms for the undertaking.

Yet it seems that a sort of bidding – or a comparing of promised deliveries – is ongoing before Duterte decides what to do with the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement that he wants to be scrapped within 180 days of his notice of termination.

We won’t be surprised if Duterte is, in fact, comparing what the US and China have to offer by way of helping improve the security and living conditions of Filipinos ravaged by the pandemic and the faltering economy.

The VFA signed in 1998 is one of two agreements left to help pursue the objectives of the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty which is not detailed enough to quickly respond to a serious security problem. The other pact is the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

While the US wants the VFA and the EDCA to stay and possibly be upgraded, it won’t be surprising if China lobbies for their termination or watering down. In this endeavor, Beijing may have the advantage of having mastered the psychology of their suki from Davao.

The last time Duterte repeated his threat to terminate the VFA, he said he might change his mind if the US comes across with 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Before that, the issue was the cancellation of the US visa of his protégé national police chief and now senator Bato dela Rosa.

The matter of visas and vaccines may look petty and manageable, but these are just starters. The US still has a dark forest to explore as it bids to win Duterte’s sympathy.

The termination threat apparently worked. Bato’s precious visa has been restored and the US has stepped up its delivery of Stateside vaccines to its former colony.

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WHEN Duterte spoke at Clark in Pampanga on Feb. 12, he opened his mind and revealed its commercial content. He accused Washington of taking “so much from us” while failing to pay a fair recompense to its long-time friend and ally. But he didn’t give a figure.

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

He added: “I would like to put on a notice… that from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement? You have to pay. It’s a shared responsibility, but your share does not come free… We’re nearest to the garrison where there are a lot of arsenals of the Chinese armed forces.”

This reminds us of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos saying in that CBS “Face the Nation” interview of Feb. 16, 1986, after he was accused of staging a fraudulent “snap election”, that the bases agreement should be renegotiated and the US made to pay more than the $900 million promised him in US military and economic aid over a period of years.

It was uncanny, but just one week after he threatened to raise the bases rent, on Feb. 25, oppressed Filipinos staged a bloodless “People Power Revolution” that sent the ailing Marcos, tubes and all, scampering to Hawaii with his family, courtesy of the US Air Force.

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IN HIS speech at Clark on the VFA, 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 everybody knows 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.

In aiming for increased US aid, his situation is not exactly the same as that of Marcos circa 1986. While the latter had the bases — including Clark, Subic, and John Hay — to lease out, Duterte has none to offer.

In talks with the US, Duterte’s main leverage is the Philippines’ strategic location on one side of the South China Sea as part of a wall of islands lying between the SCS and the vast Pacific across which is the US mainland.

As for the substance of the VFA, Duterte can compare it with the Status of Forces contracts the US has with its NATO and other allies harboring US men and materiel. From these documents, he can derive ideas on how to improve the VFA’s terms.

In general, the VFA’s utility is in its laying down the rules governing the presence and activities of the parties’ military personnel in the territories of the other party. (There is a little-known reciprocal VFA-II covering Filipino military personnel when assigned in the US.) A sensitive provision that must be reviewed is the section on criminal jurisdiction over erring US servicemen.

The US bases had to be closed after the 1991 expiration 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, or concurred in, bases treaty as required by the Constitution. It is more the EDCA, not the VFA, that provides the legal framework for the temporary and rotational presence of US military personnel on Philippine bases.

The VFA should not be reviewed or revised in isolation. The talks on how to adapt the 22-year-old contract to the evolving realities of the present will impinge on the gamut of bilateral relations — and maybe even the very tenure of Duterte.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 17, 2021)

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