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Duterte retracts VFA abrogation

File photo of Balikatan exercises

AFTER over a year of uncertainty that began with the termination process and the suspension of such termination twice, President Duterte has decided to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, saying it favors the country’s interest.

In a news statement issued on Friday, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque reiterated the country would only continue to engage in partnerships with other countries which support its “core national interest.”

He made the pronouncement when asked about the announcement of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that President Duterte has decided to withdraw the abrogation of VFA.

The withdrawal happened during his meeting with visiting US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III last Thursday.

Malacañang said Duterte had “an open and frank discussion status of and future direction of the Philippines-US engagement” with Austin.

“They agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of the pandemic response, combatting transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law and trade and investments,” the Office of the President said in a separate statement.

Austin’s visit is part of the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

Locsin welcomes move

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. earlier welcomed Austin at the DFA offices and both affirmed their commitment to strengthen the alliance and discussed updates defense and security cooperation between the Philippines and US.

Austin is the first Biden administration Cabinet member to visit the Philippines and to set foot at the DFA.

Austin is in Manila to discuss with Philippine government officials mutual security concerns between the Philippines and US.

Remarking on the extension of the VFA, Locsin said, “It is vital to maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region.  All the protagonists in the region, without a single exception, see a strong US presence as imperative to peace and stability in Southeast Asia.”

He said “they are the precondition for mutually beneficial cooperation rather than destructive conflict among themselves.”

“The United States has shown its commitment to fulfill its obligations to us under the alliance. They have addressed issues arising from our security relationship with good faith. Together, we have moved forward on the basis of common interest, shared values and mutual respect.”

Upon the instructions of President Duterte, Locsin handed over to Secretary Austin the Diplomatic Note recalling the abrogation of the VFA.

Manila’s highest envoy said this is a special year for the Philippines-US alliance.  “We celebrate not just 75 years of diplomatic relations, but also 70 years of the Mutual Defense Treaty, 70 years of the United States being our only defense treaty ally.”

He said the alliance has stayed strong in overcoming challenges.

The VFA provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises.

It has assumed additional importance as the US and its allies contend with China’s assertiveness in the region.

Duterte ordered the abrogation of the 1998 VFA, which allows US military forces to enter the country’s territory, after the cancellation of the US tourist visa of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, a close aide of the President from Davao City who became his first National Police chief before entering politics.

The abrogation proceeding were initiated in February 2020, but was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In February 2021, Duterte said the US government must “pay” if it wants to maintain the VFA.

‘Shared commitment’

In a briefing with reporters, Lorenzana said the bilateral meeting he had with Austin served as a platform to discuss the course and future of the two countries’ alliance based on the “current priorities of our respective administrations.”

“It underscored the significance of the bilateral defense relations between the Philippines and the US, in light of new and re-emerging challenges that confront our nations,” Lorenzana said.

“This visit is another manifestation of the shared commitment to the alliance between our defense establishments amid the inherent risks and challenges of the pandemic,” he added.

On the other hand, Austin said he was “glad to have the opportunity in person, to reaffirm our shared commitment to the US-Philippine alliance.”

Department of National Defense spokesman Arsenio  Andolong said that aside from the VFA and boosting security ties and defense cooperation between the two countries, the two defense secretaries also discussed the developments in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the fight against Covid-19 during the meeting.

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