MANILA — The Philippines' top diplomat denied Monday that the reported presence of 3 US aircraft carriers in the disputed South China Sea was linked to President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to keep a troop deployment agreement with Washington.
The deployment of the 3 vessels carrying 60 aircraft each was the first US Navy deployment of this size to the Pacific since 2017, according to a CNN report. The dispatch is likely intended to send a message to China that despite the coronavirus pandemic, the US military will maintain a strong presence in the region, said analysts quoted by The Japan Times.
"The United States is exercising its freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. That's an international right," Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
Asked if the deployment was linked to Manila and Washington's Visiting Forces Agreement, he said, "No."
The VFA provides the legal framework for which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines and experts say without it, their other bilateral defense agreements cannot be implemented.
Duterte pulled the plug on the VFA on Feb. 11 in an angry response to the revocation of a US visa held by former police chief-turned-senator Ronald Dela Rosa who led his war on drugs.
The termination of the VFA was supposed to take effect in August.
The President suspended his decision to abandon the pact because "he saw that the tensions in the south China Sea were getting in the way of a united response to the COVID-19 crisis," Locsin said.
"The American side won't feel that they have their backs to the wall and the Chinese will be actually, I believe relieved that the Americans will feel that way so we can then concentrate on COVID," he told ANC.
RELATIONS WITH CHINA
Duterte's embrace of historic rival China, a country deeply mistrusted by the US, has attracted considerable criticism, with opponents accusing him of gambling with sovereignty in pursuit of massive investments that have not materialized.
Beijing also refuses to acknowledge a United Nations-backed tribunal's 2016 ruling that invalidated its sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Manila's relation with Beijing is "the opposite of appeasement right now," said Locsin.
"Every transgression and incursion made by the Chinese or even just a suspicion of it is immediately reported to me... and we craft a diplomatic note and fire it off," he said.
The US "can erase" China's defense structures in the waterway with heat missiles in "the first 30 minutes of conflict," he said.
Locsin said he would also give "some thought" to recent calls for China to pay environmental damages in the South China Sea.
"There are international forums for that purpose. I think maybe I'll ask them to propose to me what we should do. But if it's just to provoke China... no," he said.
Locsin will also "bring up again" with Beijing the damages that a Chinese vessel is supposed to pay for sinking of a Philippine boat whose crew were left floating for hours off Reed Bank last year.
The Philippines and China, which marked 45 years of diplomatic ties this month, were "still talking about the meaning of this and that term" in their planned joint oil exploration, he said. — With a report from Reuters