The value of revisiting the VFA

(Opening remarks of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. at the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs’ hearing on the Visiting Forces Agreement last February 6, 2020)

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, Mr. Chairman, Senate President; Senator Drilon; Senators Poe and Tolentino; members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; colleagues in government service; friends; good morning.

I wish to first of all thank the chairman and the honorable members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for the invitation to discuss with you our defense and security arrangements with the US, specifically, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

We welcome this opportunity to get a sense of the Legislative branch’s views on the matter and its attendant issues, as we also welcome inputs from other stakeholders.

We would have wished to respectfully request that in making this presentation, the committee go on executive session owing to the highly sensitive nature of the topics to be discussed. But we, in the Department of Foreign Affairs, are fine with any arrangement. My colleagues in the Cabinet, however, who are in-charge of the nuts and bolts of national defense may wish to have an executive session and I hope they are accommodated.

Let me proceed. My presentation this morning will focus primarily on the VFA. It will also, tangentially, touch on other Philippine-US defense/security related agreements, such as the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca).

The flow of presentation will cover the following: (1) The direct and indirect benefits derived from the VFA; and (2) A preliminary impact assessment of an abrogation of the VFA given the benefits identified.

The DFA is not proffering any options at this point, as it chooses to also take into account the views of the Legislative branch and other quarters of society, before doing so; not to mention the Department of National Defense which is at the forefront of the issue because this is about national security: the highest object of foreign and domestic policy. I have repeatedly said: that foreign affairs in my watch is the fist in the iron glove of the armed forces. You will listen to other views on how and whether to continue the VFA.

The option for the Philippines to terminate the VFA is an exercise of sovereignty. The termination of the VFA may facilitate closer relations with nontraditional partners, such as ideally far Russia. A power, like the US, too far to meddle in our internal affairs, without any acquisitive interest in our territory, yet strong and with a long enough reach to hit a common enemy in our mutual defense. In the matter of national defense, closer relations cannot ever encompass a military alliance with a near power because that is illogical, impractical, self-defeating and an invitation to foreign aggression. However, the termination of the VFA must be weighed in terms of the overall national interest of the country.

We have listed four areas where the direct benefits derived from the VFA are most manifest. Clearly, these will be in respect of Philippine defense, military and security

1. The VFA ensures operability of other Philippines-US defense agreements and modalities of cooperation.

Other Philippines-US Agreements and modalities of defense and security cooperation may be rendered inoperative despite remaining legally valid. Some of these agreements and modalities of cooperation include the MDT which the VFA serves, the Edca which gives substance to the commitments of the MDT, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, and the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB- SEB) approved joint exercises on combating traditional and non-traditional security threats which is to say Islamic terrorists with which we can never be at peace.

For the MDT, the VFA is the substance that makes it real and makes it work. The Edca, on the other hand, is hinged on the VFA. There would, essentially, be no practical use for an Edca in the absence of the VFA which is the legal framework for the presence of US military personnel in military exercises and actual military responses under the MDT. Without them, the MDT is just a piece of paper. There are contrary views on this.

2. The VFA allows the US to provide a total-package approach on defense articles that would be compatible with equipment, assets and systems that are already in place. There are again different views on this.

Current military equipment, assets, and systems are largely patterned from and/or provided by the US. Through the years, the requirements for AFP modernization were addressed by the incremental procurement of defense articles that the Philippines has made after due diligence undertaken by relevant Philippine government agencies, specifically the  Department of National Defense.

The dollar amount for security assistance/security cooperation programs obtained from the US for the period 2016 to 2019 totals $554.55 million. This includes $267.75 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for the procurement of defense articles for the same period. In addition, under the VFA, the Philippines is able to receive aftersales servicing in the form of maintenance packages that increase the articles’ value and lifespan.

The US plans to spend over $200 million in 2020-2021 providing aircraft, training, equipment, and construction for the AFP, and more than $45 million in FMF.

Without the VFA, the US Departments of State and Defense will be hard put to get funds from the US Congress for FMF and other defense assistance programs to the Philippines.

3. The VFA promotes interoperability between Philippine forces and law enforcement agencies and their US counterparts. Again, you will listen to contrary views, but for now…

The MDB-SEB have approved joint activities between the militaries and law enforcement agencies of both countries through the years. The termination of the VFA may impact the upcoming FY 2020 activities, which the Philippine military and law enforcement agencies need to enhance their capabilities in countering threats to national security.

There are some 319 activities lined up for this year.

The absence of a VFA would result in a severe curtailment of defense engagements with the Philippines and the cancellation of cooperative defense activities in the Philippines, as it provides the legal framework for the presence of US Forces in the Philippines. The US will not operate without the VFA.

4. The VFA allows for continued support for addressing non-traditional security threats.

Through the VFA, US Forces have been instrumental in assisting the Philippines to combat nontraditional security threats, such as trafficking in persons, cyber attacks, terrorism, and illegal narcotics through trainings, joint exercises and exchange visits. The US has also provided support for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, as well as search and rescue operations. Disaster response is more than humanitarian in purpose; the new military doctrine assumes that developments in modern warfare partake in destructiveness of the nature of natural calamities like typhoons and earthquakes. So disaster response to natural or military-inflicted calamities must be in the same scale.

US assistance on counterterrorism, especially on intelligence and capability-building, have proven to be vital.

This support was crucial in enabling the Philippine security forces to prevail in the Battle of Marawi in 2017. Recently, the US Department of Defense support has enabled continued AFP operations to degrade Isis-East Asia-aligned militants in southern Philippines, as well as several successful operations to rescue British and Indonesian citizens taken hostage by the Abu Sayyaf Group. Curtailment of the Department of Defense support resulting from a terminated VFA would diminish the AFP’s immediate capabilities to degrade and deter terrorism, and respond to terrorist emergencies. There may be new developments on this,
contrary to this view.

On the other hand, Mr. chairman, the following is an enumeration of six areas where the indirect benefits of continuing the VFA are manifest, or, put differently, may be put at risk should the VFA be terminated:

1. The Philippines’s international standing as viewed by other US allied countries is

While the VFA is a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the US, there may be repercussions in the way other US-allied and/or US-friendly countries (e.g., Russia, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel) perceive and/or conduct their foreign relations with the Philippines should it be decided that the agreement be terminated. Philippine credibility to deliver on mutual military arrangements to maintain peace and stability in the region depend as much if not more on our American alliance. Behind us is a sense of American support.

2. Recent actions by the US have shown its renewed commitment to  its  defense  obligations  to  the  Philippines  through  the pronouncements of Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper during their visits to Manila in 2019.

In addition, in the FY 2020 US National Defense Authorization Act signed into law on December 20, 2019, the US Congress has tasked both the Secretaries of State and Defense to submit a report on a strategy to preserve and strengthen Philippines-US military alliance, including the appropriate support to enhance Philippines’s defense capabilities, particularly in the seas. This derives from the provision of the NDAA, which states:

“…an armed attack on the armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft of the Republic of the Philippines in the Pacific, including the South China Sea, would trigger the mutual defense obligations of the United States under Article IV of the Mutual Defense Treaty…”

This is an unequivocal  commitment that had been conveyed mainly verbally in the past. It is now in writing. In short, in a military engagement, the sinking of a Philippine vessel triggers an American response.

The regular presence of US Forces including those conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, serve as a deterrent to aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea.

Corollarily, the MDT is a deterrent to any attack from any power.

The termination of the VFA will very likely dilute the US’s commitment to the MDT.

3.  The  existing  goodwill  and  friendly  relations  between  the Philippines and the US may be compromised.

The historically robust and friendly relations between the Philippines and the US are further strengthened by the high level of trust and confidence between the Philippines and the United States. With the termination of the VFA, overall relations may be adversely affected and various areas of bilateral and multilateral (involving both countries) cooperation may be put in jeopardy.

In this regard, it may be recalled that President Donald J. Trump, just a year into his presidency, showed special preference to the Philippines by coming to Manila for the Asean Summit in 2017. This led to the country’s highly successful hosting of that event. Trump has not attended any Asean Summits since: those hosted by Singapore in 2018 and Thailand in 2019.

4. Philippines-US robust economic relations may be affected.

The US is the Philippines’s third-largest trading partner at $18.70 billion (as of end 2018), and our biggest export market and our fourth-largest import source.

The Philippines also enjoys preferential treatment on its exports to the US as a beneficiary of the US Generalized System of Preferences and will continue to be such until December 31, 2020. The GSP was reauthorized on March 23, 2018, after Trump signed the Omnibus Spending Bill which included GSP renewal language.

Our GSP exports account for 16 percent of our total exports to the US, valued at an estimated $1.7 billion in 2018.

It may be noted also that the Philippines currently enjoys a trade surplus with the US, with our exports outpacing our imports by as much as $371.98 million (as of June 2019).

5. The healthy state of our bilateral trade, investments and tourism may be imperiled.

The US is the Philippines’s fifth-largest source of investments accounting for some P12.9 billion in 2018.

The US is also the Philippines’ third-largest tourism market with over 1 million tourist arrivals in 2018.

Finally, in respect of Official Development Assistance, the US is the largest source of grants (there are no loans) accounting for 36.89-percent share of total grants in 2018 (at $886.47 million).

6. US Assistance facilitated by the VFA may dry up.

From 2016 to 2019, the US provided substantial development assistance in the amount of $336.306 million (P16.8 billion). This amount funded programs for scholarships and seminars; and projects on education, health, environment, agriculture and fisheries, trade, labor, and governance. This brings total US Assistance to the Philippines for the same period to $904.93 million.

Let me conclude with some basic and incontrovertible facts and principles, valid at all times and in all places in the conduct of foreign affairs.

1.  A mutual defense treaty is a promise and a threat. It is a mutual promise by two countries to defend one another from attack as if that attack were made on the other.

2. As a promise, the MDT is only as good as its performance or delivery when it is triggered. The poet Robert Frost said, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” We will not know how real it is until we or the US is attacked. Then we must, as we should, declare and make war on its attacker whatever the cost to us. Failure forfeits our claim to be a real sovereign state whose word is its bond. This is called “prestige” in international relations. In a mutual defense arrangement, no one counts the cost of performance because, while it exists, both parties draw down on its main benefit. And what is that benefit? It is deterrence. The geographical proximity of the Philippines to the most likely aggressor against the US—or against the Philippines given the MDT and its supportive arrangements in Edca and the VFA is a severe deterrent. That proximity means the response will be near instantaneous. In mutual defense there is to be no second thought nor any second wasted in response. In warfare, time is power and money. Hence, while the Mutual Defense Treaty abides, the Edca was adopted to shorten the response time by prepositioning military assets closer to the possible theater of war so as to reduce the cost of keeping the mutual defense vibrant and effective. Under Edca we have given the US five access locations in the Philippines. It has developed one. No one can say the US is hungry to stretch the extent and duration of its passing and never permanent but always necessary presence in the Philippines. Concomitant with the Edca is the Visiting Forces Agreement which provides a template governing the behavior of US military personnel while they are in the Philippines on a visit, for say joint military exercises. We have a similar agreement with Australia. We might have one with Japan.

3. It has been proposed to abrogate the VFA with the US. It has also been said that the Mutual Defense Treaty and presumably the Edca are to remain in place. That is not entirely up to us. The US may see no need to continue with Edca without the VFA because its military capability depends on human operators whose behavior need to be regulated; such as how they are to be dealt with when and if they commit crimes.

4.  The Mutual Defense Treaty without the VFA and Edca may be compared to a deflated balloon. For all practical purposes it becomes an extra large rubber for an Asian—far more elastic than he can ever need for its purpose and more suitable as a shower cap than a prophylactic against foreign aggression.

5. Can any other power or powers replace the US? It is rationally inconceivable to have a Mutual Defense Treaty with any military power except one that is too far to meddle in one’s internal affairs but with a strong and long enough reach to hit the mutual enemy. Thus, logically we can only have a military alliance with Russia in the far north and the United States in the far east across the Pacific. But Russia does not want to take on the US. Nor does China, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi told our President.

6. While the Philippines has the prerogative to terminate the VFA anytime, the continuance of the Agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any benefits were it to be terminated.

Terminating the VFA will negatively impact the Philippines’s defense and security arrangements, as well the overall bilateral relations of the Philippines with the US and, perhaps, even on the subregional and multilateral level. Our contribution to regional defense is anchored on our military alliance with the world’s last superpower. There are, of course, irritants which need to be addressed but the DFA has taken steps to clarify with the US certain items pertaining to the VFA to avoid any issues in the implementation of agreement.

However, it must be said that the VFA is the logical target when the country’s sovereign justice system, modeled after the American system no less, is disrespected. When US senators demeaned the Philippine justice system, which is the mirror-image of that of the United States, by demanding the release of an accused properly charged by two rulings of our Supreme Court, it insulted the most basic aspect of sovereignty: the monopoly on justice within its territory. On top of which, the US senators insulted their own justice system after which ours is faithfully modeled. Therefore, there is value in revisiting the VFA to address issues of sovereignty, such as jurisdiction and custody.

An early resumption of bilateral clarificatory talks should serve as a basis, as well as a jump-off point, for a review of the VFA. At this point, we would like to open ourselves to questions from the floor. Thank you so much.


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