Duterte cancels order to terminate VFA with US

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 30) — President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to recall the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, the Philippine defense chief announced on Friday.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the change of heart came after the President met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III on Thursday.

He said the deal will proceed as if it did not face near abrogation, adding that Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Philippine Ambassador to Washington Babe Romualdez may have convinced the President to reconsider his earlier pronouncement.

"The President decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA," Lorenzana told the media at Camp Aguinaldo.

"The VFA is in full force again, there is no termination letter that is pending," he told his counterpart after their bilateral meeting. "We are back on track, Mr. Secretary, to plan for future exercises under the VFA."

The Pentagon official thanked President Duterte for retaining the VFA, a decades-old agreement between Manila and Washington on the protocol for American military personnel in the country.

On Duterte’s order, the Philippines on Feb. 11, 2020 served the United States an official notice of termination of the two decade-old agreement.

The termination process, however, was suspended in June last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and emerging threats in the South China Sea.

The Philippine government in November 2020 extended the suspension for another six months or until August 2021.

The fiasco on the VFA stemmed from the cancellation of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa's visa due to alleged extrajudicial killings during his term as chief of the Philippine National Police from 2016 to 2018 under Duterte's war on drugs.

Lorenzana said the Philippines and the U.S. are discussing the details on custody of American troops, but it will not affect the terms of the deal.

Among the controversial provisions of the 1988 deal is the authority granted to the U.S. government to retain jurisdiction over its soldiers if ever they commit crimes on Philippine soil.

"It will be an adjunct or additional agreement between the two countries," Lorenzana said.

The agreement is also seen to support the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), another deal which guarantees that they will provide military aid to each other in case their metropolitan areas or territories in the Pacific are attacked by a foreign force.

Lorenzana said he wants to "revisit" the MDT to make it more relevant to the current situation.

Meanwhile, Austin reaffirmed Washington's commitment to protect the Philippines against any attacks — including those carried out in the West Philippine Sea — as part of the defense treaty.

Speaking to CNN Philippines, international studies professor Renato de Castro said US assurance to provide "game-changing" COVID-19 vaccines may have affected Duterte's decision.

De Castro added that in Austin's speech during his visit in Singapore, he emphasized how the coronavirus shots are being given for free with no political strings attached.

De Castro also said he believes the decision will not affect Duterte's stand on foreign policies and issues, since he may be shifting his focus now on domestic matters like the 2022 elections. He noted that this may be the President's direction in the coming months, considering the fact that his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, is a potential presidential candidate in next year's polls.

"He could put foreign policy, issues regarding our security relations with the United States, issues regarding China...aside because in the next months he will simply have one focus...to get his anointed successor be elected," De Castro explained.