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Philippines working with US to salvage defense ties, ambassador says

Secretary Pompeo meets with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr., joined by Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez and Ambassador Kim (U.S. Embassy in the Philippines/WikiCommons)
March 02, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Philippine and U.S. officials are working to salvage a defense pact after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the country to drop out of a bilateral visiting forces agreement, the country’s envoy to Washington said Friday.

Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez told a security forum in Manila that a new agreement could take the form of a limited military engagement that could be similar to Philippine alliances with Australia and Japan.

“We are now in the process of thinking how we can come up with a similar agreement,” Romualdez said.

“Needless to say, specifically the members of the U.S. Pentagon are extremely concerned about the VFA being terminated and how we will work,” bilaterally on defense matters, he said, using the acronym for the Visiting Forces Agreement.

The U.S. “is a major country that no one can ignore including China,” Romualdez said, underscoring that the VFA was not the “be all and end all” of bilateral defense cooperation.

His statement came a day after a Philippine military spokesman said the country can quell security threats without Washington’s help.

The Feb. 11 announcement that the Philippines was leaving the VFA was in reaction to the U.S. government cancelling the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, Duterte’s former national police chief who implemented the first phase of the nation’s drug war that has left thousands dead.

U.S. President Donald Trump has downplayed the effects of the pact’s termination, saying his country would save money in the long run. It was also the Philippines’ loss, Trump said, emphasizing that U.S. troops helped drive militants linked to the Islamic State from the southern city of Marawi three years ago.

Romualdez said diplomats and defense officials of both countries would continue discussions and come up with recommendations to be given to Duterte, who earlier this week said that the Philippine military could stand up on its own.

The VFA will be terminated in August, 180 days after the Feb. 11 announcement. Romualdez did not say if negotiators would be ready with recommendations before then.

The VFA, adopted in 1999, allowed for large-scale joint military operations on Philippine soil years after the government decided to end the lease agreement on two major U.S. military bases a few years earlier. U.S. troops helped train Philippine forces against militants in the southern Mindanao region while assisting in blunting China’s aggressive actions in the contested South China Sea region.