By Rommel F. Lopez

Several senators on Wednesday lauded the decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to suspend the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Philippine government’s decision to suspend the VFA termination was a “good eventuality”. He, however, stressed that the petition filed by some senators asking the Supreme Court to affirm the Senate’s role in treaty abrogation remains.

“Sa akin, personally, and perhaps majority of the members of the Senate, it’s a good eventuality sapagkat hindi tayo nangangamba na ‘yung ating VFA, at ‘yung iba pang konektado dito, ay matitigil na,” Sotto said in an online interview.

“We’re still asking the Supreme Court whether an abrogation of the executive department must have the concurrence of the Senate, the concurring body. Nandun pa rin ‘yung question na ‘yun. Hindi mata-touch iyon. Tuloy pa rin iyon,” he added.

Senate Minority leader Franklin Drilon concurred with Sotto that the “sudden policy change” does not affect the case the case they filed before the SC.

“The petition we filed is for declaratory relief and mandamus where we asked the Supreme Court to uphold the power of the Senate over treaty termination. The fact that the VFA is reinstated will not render our case moot and academic. The case stands,” Drilon added.

He, however, welcomed the Duterte administration’s decision to suspend the termination of the VFA which he says “serve the interest of our country, particularly with regard to the preservation of our rights over parts of the West Philippine Sea.”

“The abrupt abrogation of the VFA last February as initiated by the President – which was done amid the increasing aggressiveness and the bullying of China – is disadvantageous to us. What the country truly needs is a stable foreign policy that promotes our interest,” Drilon added.

Senator Panfilo Lacson lauded Duterte’s “change of heart” adding that the VFA is crucial for the Philippines especially with increased Chinese intrusion into the country’s territory.

“The President’s change of heart is a welcome development as far as defense and economic security of the country is concerned. The Philippines needs the Visiting Forces Agreement especially now that Chinese intrusions into our territory, particularly in the West Philippines Sea, have become commonplace,” Lacson, chair of the Senate national defense committee, said.

He added that the “last thing” the Philippines should lose is the “balance of power” that the US, among other allies like Australia and other ASEAN neighbors, can provide to suit the country’s national interest and territorial integrity.

“It is a no-brainer that we can’t stand on our own and protect ourselves from harassment coming from those intrusions,” Lacson added.

Senator Richard Gordon said the suspension of the VFA termination shows President Duterte’s “open-mindedness and willingness in reviewing decisions that impact the country’s national interest.”

He added that this is not the time to breaking up relations with key allied especially while the country is facing the COVID-19 pandemic. He says this is the time for “cooperation, especially longstanding friendships.”

“We have to continue to develop our ties with the United States. We have had a long history, bumpy as it is,” he said.

Administration ally Senator Francis Tolentino praised Duterte’s decision to suspend the VFA abrogation in a privilege speech delivered during the Senate’s plenary session Wednesday.

He says the decision “opens up a multitude of fresh opportunities” that would strengthen the country’s national security which would help deter “threats from outside our boundaries for the time being.”

“As the world enters into the ‘new normal,’ we welcome this recent development of the renewal of the VFA which serves as an opportunity for both nations to foster a more strengthened bond of friendship between the Philippines and the United States, a pact forged by the blood of our forefathers for the peace and security in the country and the region,” Tolentino added.

Jailed opposition senator Leila de Lima surprisingly welcomed the suspension of the VFA termination.  However, she said the decision “only proves the whimsicality and arbitrariness of the unilateral presidential action of VFA abrogation.”

“As in the previous withdrawal from the Rome Statute / ICC, public or national interest was never factored in. Only the selfish, personal and capricious interests of an impulsive and unstable President,” she said in a statement

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in a letter dated June 1, informed the US Embassy in Manila that the Philippine government is suspending the termination of the VFA effective for six months starting June 1 and will be “extendible by the Philippines for another six months”.

The US Embassy in Manila said it welcomes the Philippine government’s decision to suspend the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

“Our long-standing alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” it said.