Duterte tells US: Want to keep VFA? You have to pay

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 12 2021 07:12 PM | Updated as of Feb 13 2021 05:26 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte talks to the people after holding a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members at the Malacañang Golf (Malago) Clubhouse in Malacañang Park, Manila on Feb. 1, 2021. Richard Madelo, Presidential Photo

MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday the US must "pay" a certain toll if it wanted to keep its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Philippines, a pact central to Washington's Asia strategy. 

Duterte accused Washington of taking "so much from us", even as "so much" of Philippine demands "were not delivered at all." 

He said he once told former US President Donald Trump that the Philippines needed US guided rockets, which Manila was willing to pay for, "but until now, it's still in the air." 

"I would like to put on a notice, if there is an American agent here, that from now on, you want the Visiting Forces Agreement done? You have to pay. It's a shared responsibility, but your share of responsibility does not come free," Duterte said in a speech before troops in a military air base.

"After all, when the war breaks out, we all pay. You, kami (us), we are nearest to the garrison where there are a lot of arsenals of the Chinese armed forces." 
 
But in the same speech, Duterte recognized that "the exigency of the moment requires their (US) presence here." 

"OK na lang ako d'yan," he said. (I'm just OK with that.)

Duterte unilaterally cancelled the two-decade-old VFA last year, in an angry response to an ally being denied a visa. The withdrawal period has been twice extended, however, to create what Philippine officials have said is a window for better terms to be agreed.

"We at the defense department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told ANC on Thursday.

Philippine and US officials this week met to settle differences over the two-decade-old VFA. The meeting is the first under the administration of Trump's successor, Joe Biden, which has reaffirmed the alliance in the face of China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Beijing has refused to recognize a ruling that junked its sweeping claims to the resource-rich waterway, including parts of the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

Duterte says he is a friend of China, US

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Duterte said he was "walking on a tightrope" and he "cannot afford to be brave in the mouth against China because we are avoiding any confrontation... that would lead to something that we can hardly afford, at least at this time." 

Duterte said he was a "friend" of both China and the US. 

"But what I don't like is iyong para kang bata na they promise you—ganoon iyan e, magpunta iyong mga top brass nila (it's like that, their top brass go here). This group will promise you, and once they take off, they forget all about it," he said. 

Ties between the United States and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte's rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning US foreign policy, and open embrace of China.

But while the Philippines-US relationship "has always been strong", Lorenzana said the country "should not be made to choose" between Washington and Beijing.

Lorenzana has also expressed concern about a new Chinese law empowering coastguard to fire on what it sees as threats, and repeated US navy patrols that China sees as provocations.

He said he told his US counterpart Lloyd Austin that "we don't want any miscalculations or accidents in the South China Sea because we are right smack there in the center of conflict." — With a report from Reuters