Palace denies 'extortion' after Duterte demands US payment over VFA

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Posted at Feb 15 2021 05:02 PM | Updated as of Feb 15 2021 05:32 PM

Palace denies 'extortion' after Duterte demands US payment over VFA 1
President Rodrigo Duterte presides over the 51st Cabinet Meeting at the Malacañan Palace on February 3, 2021. Simeon Celi, Presidential Photo

MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte seeks "just compensation" for a troops deal with the United States, Malacañang said on Monday, denying an alleged "extortion" from the Philippines' only treaty ally.

“Tama ba na sumingil tayo ng halaga para sa patuloy na pananatili sa Pilipinas ng mga Amerikanong sundalo at equipment? Bakit naman hindi?” Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a news briefing.

(Is it right for us to charge a certain amount so that US soldiers and equipment can continue staying in the Philippines? Why not?)
 
“Hindi po iyan extortion. Iyan po ay isang pagtaguyod ng nasyonal na interest ng mga Pilipino,” he added.
 
(That is not extortion. That is upholding the national interest of Filipinos.)

Duterte on Friday said the US must "pay" if it wanted to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement that is central to Washington's Asia strategy.

But Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who chairs the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, said such demand might give the impression that the Philippines is a "nation of extortionists." 

"The President may have used strong words to send his message across to the US. But certainly, there is a more civil and statesmanlike manner to ask for compensation from a longtime ally using the usual diplomatic channels and still get the same desired results," Lacson said in a statement on Sunday.

In a now-deleted tweet, Lacson had said the President should "at least give the other party an elbow room to save face instead of looking bullied and stripped of dignity."

Roque said the VFA must not come for free because while it allows US troops and equipment in the Philippines, the latter will become a “valid military target” if Washington engages in war.

The Philippines has received $3.9 billion from the US, while Pakistan got $16.4 billion, Roque said, quoting a study on Washington's counterterrorism spending from 2002 to 2017. 

“Pakistan got $16 billion. We think we should get something similar or close to that amount, but definitely not the amount we are currently getting,” said the Palace spokesman. 
 
“For now, what the President wants is if you want to continue using our territory, we want just compensation for it—hindi barya, hindi bulok na mga equipment. Iyong mga dumating pong equipment, binili po natin iyan, hindi po iyan ibinigay,” added Roque. 

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(We want just compensation for it—not a pittance, not outdated equipment. The equipment that have arrived, we bought those; those were not given to us.)

Duterte unilaterally canceled 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 VFA. The meeting is the first under the administration of Donald Trump's successor, Joe Biden, who 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.

Ties between the US 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