'Exploratory' talks for a new PH-US defense pact part of 'diplomacy': Panelo

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 02 2020 04:55 PM

MANILA - Talks of a new military deal between representatives of the Philippines and the United States are only "exploratory" in nature as part of diplomacy, Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Monday.

President Rodrigo Duterte remains firm in his push for a self-reliant military, Panelo said even after Manila's envoy to Washington confirmed ongoing discussions on a new Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries.

"All of those are exploratory talks...That's diplomacy," Panelo said of Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez' recent statement that he and US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim were looking into Manila's defense agreements with Japan and Australia as possible templates for a new deal.

"I don't think you can stop the ambassador from entertaining initiatives from his counterpart," Panelo added.

The Philippines sent its notice of termination of the VFA to the US embassy last Feb. 11, on orders of Duterte following the cancellation of the US visa of Sen. Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa, one of his close allies. The abrogation, welcomed by US President Donald Trump, takes effect 180 days later.

Signed in 1998 and anchored on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty of the two countries, the VFA governs the conduct of American troops in the Philippines.

Romualdez said last week that he and Kim were "in the process of trying to find ways and means to be able to see how" the two countries can come up with a new accord," yet, "still following (Duterte's) thinking about the sovereignty issue.".

The new "improved" deal, according to Romualdez, will be recommended to Duterte.

But Panelo said President Duterte won't consider any new military deal, insisting that "the President's position remains unchanged."

PREPARED FOR THE CONSEQUENCES

Panelo said the country is prepared for the consequences of the termination of the VFA as part of Manila's push for a self-reliant military and independent foreign policy.

"The President has already said that he has studied that. So we are prepared for whatever consequences that may arise out of the abrogation of the termination of any executive agreement or treaty," Panelo said.

"We are prepared for that. That would be the logical consequence of having an independent foreign policy," he added.

The repeal of the VFA is seen by some analysts to impact the Philippines' defense capabilities, as well as the stability of the Southeast Asian region amid China's continuing assertions in the disputed South China Sea.