MANILA — US leader Joe Biden hopes to meet President Rodrigo Duterte in person, an envoy of the Philippines said on Monday, as a troop deal between the two countries hung in the balance.
The US, which will celebrate 75 years of diplomatic ties with the Philippines in July, is "hopeful" that Duterte would extend the two countries' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), said Manila's ambassador Jose Manuel "Babe" Romualdez.
"Sumulat na nga si President Biden kay President Duterte not only for the occasion of the 75th anniversary, but also to inform him of how strongly the relationship between the United States and the Philippines would continue, and that he hopes he will be able to meet in person with the President at some point in time," he said in a Malacañang press briefing.
(President Biden wrote to President Duterte.)
Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said he did not have access to US president's letter, when asked for more information during the briefing. "I will ask and inquire," he said.
The US is the Philippines' only defense ally. Last February, President Rodrigo Duterte said Washington must "pay" a toll that he did not identify, if it wanted to keep the VFA with Manila.
The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. Experts say without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.
The MDT states the two countries will come to each other's defense in case their metropolitan areas or territories are attacked. The pact will mark its 70th anniversary in August.
The upcoming anniversary "will probably be, more or less the trigger" for a conversation between Duterte and Biden, said Romualdez.
Biden hopes to talk with Southeast Asia leaders before a hopefully in-person meeting in Brunei in November, said Romualdez.
The US is set to donate COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, and some American drug makers are eyeing manufacturing plants in the country, he said.
"Maraming mga pangyayari na lumalabas naman na talagang for the United States, the Philippines is still an important ally, and they would like to keep that," Romualdez said.
(There are many events which show that for the United States, the Philippines is still an important ally, and they would like to keep that.)
Asked how the US vaccine donation could affect Duterte's VFA stance, Roque said, "We still have to receive the vaccines to begin with."
"First and foremost, hindi pa natin alam kung meron talagang darating at kung ilan at ilan ang darating so hintayin muna natin na dumating," he said in the same briefing.
(We still don't know if there are really vaccines which will arrive, how many and how much, so let us wait for them to arrive first.)
"The President has been pondering on the issue and has a bigger framework of analysis, and let's just await his decision because he is the only one who can decide on this matter."
The Philippines defense apparatus want to keep the VFA as it has been vital in boosting the capabilities of under-resourced Philippine forces through dozens of annual joint training exercises, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said.
Biden's administration has reaffirmed the alliance between Manila and Washington in the face of Beijing's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
Relations between the United States and its former east Asian colony have been complicated by Duterte's rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning US foreign policy, and his open embrace of China.
Since March, the Philippines has repeatedly protested the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters. These incursions happened despite a 2016 arbitral ruling that junked Beijing's claims to almost the entire waterway.
Duterte, who has pursued investments and loans from China, recently said the arbitral victory was a scrap of paper that could be thrown into the wastebasket.
But he said that while he could not go to war with the economic superpower, he would not pull back Philippine ships from the South China Sea.
– With a report from Reuters