US Defense Chief says ending VFA a 'wrong' move amid China aggression

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(From L-R) Presidents Donald Trump of the US, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Xi Jinping of China

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 12) — US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the Philippines' termination of its two-decade military agreement with Washington is "a move in the wrong direction" in terms of dealing with China.

Esper told reporters Tuesday that the US is still trying to digest the notice sent by the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs which marked the start of the 180-day period from when the Visiting Forces Agreement will be effectively scrapped.

The VFA is a 1998 agreement between Manila and Washington on the protocol for American military personnel in the country. Among its controversial provisions are the lax visa and passport policies for American troops and the authority granted to the US government to retain jurisdiction over its military personnel if ever they commit crimes locally.

EXPLAINER: The Visiting Forces Agreement

Esper said he thinks it is "unfortunate" for the Philippines to end the VFA, noting that he just had "very good meetings" with the country's defense officials in Manila in November 2019.

"I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction as – as we both bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region are trying to say to the Chinese, 'You must obey the international rules of order. You must obey, you know, abide by international norms'," Esper said.

"And as we try and, you know, bolster our presence and compete with them in this era of great power competition, I think it's a move in the wrong direction for -- for, again, for the longstanding relationship we've had with the Philippines for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries," he added.

Philippine Senator: Ending VFA favors China

Among the sore points in US-China relations is Beijing's actions in the South China Sea, a vast global waterway which it claims in its entirety. This includes areas that the Philippines claims and occupies as part of the West Philippine Sea where China has built artificial islands, prohibited Filipino fishermen from fishing, and interfered in petroleum exploration. A 2016 arbitral ruling ruled in favor of Manila to invalidate Beijing's sweeping claim, but China continues to reject the landmark decision.

The US does not claim any part of the South China Sea but it conducts freedom of navigation operations in the contested waters and calls out China's alleged militarization.

Despite the long-standing dispute over the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte has nurtured friendship with China – to the point of agreeing to set aside Manila's arbitration win for the sake of a planned joint oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea.

Opposition Senator Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan in a statement on Tuesday said dissolving the VFA "favors China and no longer comes as a surprise given how meek and subservient the Administration has been toward China."

Malacañang: VFA can't be salvaged

Duterte pushed through with terminating the military pact despite concerns raised by several officials, including his Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. In a Senate hearing last week, the senior diplomat pushed for a "vigorous review" of the VFA instead, saying the continuance of the agreement "is deemed to be more beneficial" for the Philippines. He highlighted the benefits that the Philippines has been getting from the VFA: military assistance, financial grants, and deterrence against possible attacks from other countries, among others.

READ: PH could lose up to ₱10 billion in aid if VFA ends, Locsin says

The Philippine Senate also passed a resolution calling for a thorough review of the VFA before coming to a decision regarding its fate.

In a speech Monday night, Duterte disclosed that US President Donald Trump is "trying to save" the VFA. Duterte said he insisted on abrogating it.

Malacañang on Tuesday said there's nothing the US can do to salvage the VFA, adding that Duterte will never accept any invitation to visit America.

The Duterte administration has repeatedly criticized US senators for demanding the release of Senator Leila de Lima – an opposition lawmaker detained on drug charges – and for seeking sanctions against those involved in her imprisonment and in alleged extrajudicial killings in the country. Duterte called the US rude for meddling in the Philippines' local affairs.

The final straw was when the US canceled Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa's tourist visa. The Philippine senator known to have close ties with Duterte acknowledged that the revocation of his visa may have something to do with alleged extrajudicial killings under his watch as chief of the Philippine National Police from 2016 to 2018.

In January, Duterte gave the US a month to "correct" the revocation of Dela Rosa's visa, but later said he would no longer wait and ordered the termination of the VFA instead.