By Christian de Lano Deiparine
(June 3, 2020) – President Rodrigo Duterte’s sudden change of heart to abrogate a military agreement with the country’s oldest security partner was fueled by recent geopolitical changes, brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and heightened super power tension, his foreign secretary said on Wednesday.
In a press statement read at the foreign affairs building, Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Philippines will continue its “strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense towards enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in the world.”
He also assured countries in the region, without directly naming Washington’s chief rival, Beijing, that the move to preserve the Visiting Forces Agreement for another year, based on the president’s instruction, “alarms no countries in Asia and the rest of the world.”
“On the contrary, it greatly reassures everyone,” he said, adding “everyone is free to speculate about what is clear and true on its face.”
He said the president has decided to give the VFA another chance because of the “vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, the time of pandemic and heightened super power tensions.”
Locsin said Duterte is “a world leader” who is “quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of our nation.”
Over the last four months, as the coronavirus pandemic raged across the world, China has taken advantage of the crisis by increasing its aggressive activities in the South China Sea, ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, threatening to fire at a Philippine Navy warship and circling around a Malaysian oil field.
It has mobilized its troops to a freezing border to stop India from building a bridge in the Himalayas and imposed tough security laws in Hong Kong, drawing protests from the US and other Western countries.
As tension rise, many nations, including the Philippines were alarmed and the alliance with the US military offers a strong security blanket through the alliance.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed the president’s suspension of the VFA revocation.
“The Philippine defense establishment is ready to continue working closely with our U.S. counterparts to find solutions to common concerns such as the ongoing pandemic that has greatly affected both our countries,” he said.
“In times of crises and global uncertainty, it is our belief that nations are only made stronger if we work together and focus our efforts on tackling the various challenges that confront us all.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson, head of the Senate’s Committee on defense and national security, also welcomed the president’s change of heart towards the VFA.
“The Philippines needs the VFA especially now that Chinese intrusions into our territory particularly in the West Philippine Sea have become commonplace,” he said in a statement.
“The last thing that we should lose is the balance of power that the USA among other allies like Australia and other ASEAN neighbors can provide to suit our national interest and territorial integrity. It is a no-brainer that we can’t stand on our own and protect ourselves from harassment coming from those intrusions.”
The U.S. embassy has also welcomed the Philippines’ decision to suspend the withdrawal, following Manila’s announcement.
But Duterte’s decision did not sit well with Left-wing activists who called the suspension as “shameful” amid the public health crisis.
“Do the policymakers deem the VFA helpful during a health crisis?” asked Renato Reyes of Bayan movement. “Is the Duterte government seeking the support of a foreign power in its drive to institute more repressive policies as a response to the worsening crisis?”
Duterte had terminated the 1998 agreement after US State Department cancelled the visa of his trusted ally, Senator Ronald dela Rosa, over involvement in alleged human rights abuses under Duterte’s drug war as national police chief.
In March, the Senate challenged before the Supreme Court the president’s power to unilaterally revoke treaties without having the vote of the upper chamber of Congress and the high tribunal has asked the executive to justify its action on the same day Locsin announced the suspension.
Defense and security analysts have warned the Philippines withdrawal from the VFA could weaken its military capabilities as well as affect its counter-terrorism efforts. (MM)
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