Philippines holds off ending VFA with US

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FILE PHOTO. President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin (R)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 6) — Despite strong statements from President Rodrigo Duterte that he wants the Visiting Forces Agreement terminated, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. revealed Thursday that he is still awaiting the President's direct order to start the formal process.

Under the two-decade military pact between the Philippines and the US, the VFA can be terminated via a written notice from either of the countries. Expiration will come 180 days from the time either party notifies the other.

"I have prepared a notice of termination but it has not been sent upon the orders of the President," Locsin said in a Senate hearing that tackled resolutions related to the VFA, including calling on Duterte to reconsider his decision to end it pending impact assessment.

In his opening statement, Locsin highlighted the benefits the Philippines has been getting from the VFA: military assistance, financial grants, and deterrence against possible attacks from other countries, among others.

EXPLAINER: The Visiting Forces Agreement

He said the continuance of the agreement is "is deemed to be more beneficial" for the Philippines, noting that abrogating it may also affect other important deals with the US, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

The MDT states that each country would come to the defense of the other in case of an attack by a foreign country, while the EDCA – which Senate Minorirty Leader Franklin Drilon said was "merely an implementation of the VFA" – allows the US military to use and control five bases in the Philippines.

'Vigorous review' instead?

Despite numerous advantages to keeping the VFA, Locsin said a "vigorous review" is called for, following American senators' repeated calls for the release of Senator Leila de Lima – an opposition lawmaker detained on drug charges. The Duterte administration sees US Senate resolutions concerning De Lima as an insult to the country's sovereignty, saying she is being tried by the country's independent courts.

"There is value in revisiting the VFA to address matters of sovereignty such as jurisdiction and custody and early resumption of clarificatory talks should serve as basis, as well as jump off point for a review of the VFA,” Locsin said.

"Perhaps, we should review the VFA, certainly we should do that because I don’t believe that because we need them, we should suffer insults to our sovereignty," he added. 

Locsin said he will "insist on" negotiating controversial provisions of the VFA during the review, including the lax visa and passport policies for American troops and the authority granted to the US government to retain jurisdiction over military personnel if ever they commit crimes in the Philippines.

Locsin, however, clarified that the Department of Foreign Affairs has no formal stance whether it is preferring a termination or a review of the VFA, adding that they have to be briefed first by security and defense officials. The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs held an executive session after the public hearing to discuss sensitive matters.

Threat or order?

On January 23, Duterte threatened to scrap the VFA – a drastic response to the US' cancellation of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa's tourist visa. He gave the US government a month to reverse the move.

Malacañang later revealed, however, that Duterte already ordered to "start the process" of terminating the VFA that same night. Locsin said he quickly coordinated with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to heed the President's order.

Locsin then said they would also discuss the issue with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, since the VFA is considered by the Philippines as a treaty – requiring Senate concurrence for its passage – while the US treats it as an executive agreement.

Whether the Senate needs to concur with the termination of the treaty is still unclear, as the Constitution only says that the upper chamber's nod is needed for a treaty to come into force. This question is also the subject of petitions before the Supreme Court assailing Duterte's withdrawal of the Philippines from the International Criminal Court.

On January 29, Duterte said he had made up his mind about terminating the VFA and is no longer waiting for the US to renew Dela Rosa's visa.

“I am terminating the VFA. I was not joking. The day I said it was the day that I decided it should be terminated,” Duterte told reporters.