I agree with President Rodrigo Duterte’s move to abrogate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States, one of many military-to-military pacts that form part of the strategic alliance of the two countries.
Like other deals entered into by past governments with the private sector, the agreement that allows US troops to come and hold training and exercises in the country was one-sided.
It was an onerous deal.
It was rammed on our throats at a time when the Philippines was in need of a stronger deterrent against an assertive China, a security umbrella to make up for its very limited external defense capability.
Remember that when former foreign affairs secretary Domingo Siazon signed it in February 1998, the Filipinos’ memory of the sudden Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, a disputed territory in the South China Sea, was still fresh.
At that time, Navy and Coast Guard ships were playing cat-and-mouse games with Chinese vessels close to our territorial waters in the South China Sea, chasing fishing boats getting near the Bataan and Zambales coasts.
The Chinese were stealing our marine resources and encroaching into our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines had no credible air defense and coastal radars and no fighters and faster surface combatant vessels to challenge any country violating our maritime and air spaces.
We didn’t even have the eyes and ears to stop poaching in our waters and were completely surprised when a Captain Raul del Rosario found out about the makeshift hut on Ayungin shoal while on an aerial patrol mission.
The Navy could not patrol the same area because it had no vessels that could endure longer sea duties and withstand harsh conditions during monsoon season.
A powerless Philippines was forced to accept terms and provisions that favored the Americans under the VFA, particularly on criminal jurisdiction on US servicemen who had committed crimes in the country.
Two cases — Smith and Pemberton — have highlighted the helplessness of the Philippines in enforcing our laws in connection with these rape and murder cases.
When the US forces abandoned toxic wastes at their former bases and damaged corals after an American warship ran aground in Tubbataha, the Philippines was unable to claim huge environmental damages from the United States.
The VFA allows US ships and planes free docking and landing fees and duty-free importation of goods and services.
The VFA is among the vestiges of one-sided deals entered into by the Philippines with the United States, remnants of a master-colony relationship, like the 1946 Bell Trade Act, the 1947 Military Bases Agreement and 1955 Laurel-Langley trade agreement.
Thankfully, these deals ended years ago. The Philippines had surrendered its sovereignty as a free and independent country under those covenants.
We won our independence in 1946, the first in Asia to do so from Western powers, but the agreements entered into by our past leaders had chained us to American interests in the region.
It was only morally and legally right to unshackle the Philippines from unequal ties with the Americans.
We have demonstrated many times in the past that we can stand on our own and defy US foreign policy and partnership.
We opposed US sanctions in the Middle East because in the 1970s and 1980s, our interests did not intersect with the US. Our dependency on energy, workers’ welfare and protection and the peace process with Muslim rebels were more important than US policies to punish Libya.
We had a better deal with Australia on a similar Status of Forces Arrangement allowing Australian soldiers to train and exercise in the country.
The Japanese who were exploring a similar VFA deal with Filipinos found the Australian agreement a better model to replicate than the US agreement.
Avelino Cruz, the former defense secretary under the Arroyo administration, and his chief negotiator, Rodel Cruz, did an excellent job in putting the country’s interests ahead in Status of Visiting Agreement ( SoVFA ) with Australia.
If we could hammer out a better deal for the country’s interests before, we can do it again.
This is why we need to terminate the VFA with the United States. It is not favorable to our national interests.
However, the agreement has been beneficial to the military despite the imbalance in the provisions of the pact. Filipino soldiers can train and exercise with American troops, learn modern military strategies and tactics, and get much exposure to sophisticated weapons systems, like tactical drones, high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), and the P3C-Orion and P8 Poseidon anti-submarine surveillance planes.
The annual large-scale exercises, like the joint and combined “Balikatan” activities, allow both sides to rehearse mutual defense plans, testing the inter-operability and readiness of each armed forces to respond to any contingency in the region.
The army has a separate brigade-size “Salaknib” exercises. The marines has “Kamandag” after Duterte ordered an end to the annual “Phiblex” exercises, and the air force has “Talon Vision.” There’s also a “Balance Piston” exercises for special forces from both sides, including airborne and scuba-diving training.
The two allies have more than 300 bilateral engagements in a year, including basic and advanced military education and technical training in the continental United States and inside local bases.
Washington is now willing to transfer brand-new and modern equipment to the local military, like Scan Eagle tactical drones, C-130 mounted surveillance devices, Amphibious Assault Vehicles and attack helicopters.
In fact, American pilots have started helping local flyboys familiarize themselves in flying F-16 multi-role fighters in an airfield north of Manila. They also offered second-hand Black Hawk, Cobra and C12 Huron, a twin-engine, turbo-prop plane not for the air force but for the army, which has activated an aviation unit.
Under the US federal budget for fiscal year 2020, the Philippines was allocated $160 million in foreign aid, the largest in the East Asia and Pacific region, from the State Department. About a third will go to the security sector, and the rest will fund economic and social programs, including human rights projects.
The VFA has helped facilitate quick and timely humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) assistance as seen by the American response during Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, in November 2013.
The VFA is an imperfect agreement. It has its advantages and disadvantages, but our political leaders must look at the value of the accord from the military perspective and work hard to improve on certain political, economic, social and environmental issues which clearly were not in our favor.
And that is why I disagree with Rodrigo Duterte’s motivation to scrap the VFA based on the visa issue of a close friend.
It is so trivial, selfish and self-serving to throw away a deal that can be re-negotiated to make it fairer to both sides.
Duterte must rise above personal pride and vested interests to show real leadership.
Duterte felt it was an affront to his leadership for the Americans to revoke the visa of his close political ally and friend, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, a former national police chief who carried out his brutal policy against illegal drugs.
It is wrong to cancel the VFA on the visa issue alone. It must be for a better reason. It should be for the common good of more than 100 million Filipinos, and not for a few who belong to his circle of friends.
A veteran defense reporter and former correspondent of the Reuters news agency, Manny Mogato won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ reporting on the Philippines’s war on drugs.