MANILA (UPDATE) — The Philippine military expressed its gratitude for the government’s decision to keep its Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States as it hosted a meeting on Monday with the US Indo-Pacific Command chief in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the two countries’ defense treaty.
“The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is immensely grateful for the decision of the President and AFP commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, to recall the note verbale on the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” AFP chief of staff Lt. Gen. Jose Faustino Jr. said in a message during the Camp Aguinaldo visit of US INDOPACOM chief Admiral John Aquilino.
Faustino’s message was read by AFP Inspector General. Lt. Gen. Franco Nemesio Gacal as the chief was under quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
Duterte recalled his order to terminate the VFA after meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Malacañang late last month.
He initially notified the US about the pact’s abrogation early last year after the cancellation of the US visa of his ally, Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, possibly over the latter’s role, when he was national police chief, in alleged extrajudicial killings in the administration’s drug war, which the US has been concerned with.
In June, when the status of the VFA was still uncertain, then AFP chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said, “The VFA is a cornerstone of our alliance with the United States that has benefitted both our countries' armed forces.”
The two-decade-old military agreement, which provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines, offers opportunities for joint and interoperability trainings of both armed forces, Sobejana had said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had also said that his agency and the armed forces were for the retention of the VFA.
During Aquilino’s meeting with the AFP, Faustino described the preservation of the VFA as a “sound decision.”
“Our joint cooperation shall surely branch out to more opportunities that shall fortify and sharpen the capabilities of both our armed forces,” he said.
The progress on the VFA is "a huge leap forward that puts stake on the ground for continued cooperation," Aquilino, for his part, said during his courtesy call also on Monday on Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., according to a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The US INDOPACOM, which is headquartered in Hawaii, is the implementing body of all joint activities under the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board, including the Balikatan Exercises, the two countries' largest military drills, the DFA said.
The relationship of his country and the Philippines “has withstood the tests” of the pledge of their alliance “to protect that freedom no matter the size or complexity of the threat”, Aquilino said in his speech in Camp Aguinaldo.
And it “flourishes today.”
“From rejecting unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea to countering malign influences throughout the region, the strength of our alliance is what will ensure our continued success in these endeavors,” he said.
In his meeting with Locsin, Aquilino "assured the (Foreign) Secretary that the US sees the Philippines and the US as sovereign, equal defense partners in ensuring the peace and prosperity in the region."
Aside from the AFP leadership and Locsin, Aquilino also held a separate meeting with Lorenzana on the same day.
“We talked about matters of mutual concern, including the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the region, and the continued cooperation between the AFP and US Armed Forces,” Lorenzana said.
VALUE OF MDT
Manila and Washington’s Mutual Defense Treaty was signed on Aug. 30, 1951, binding them to aid each other in the event of foreign aggression.
Aquilino, whose unit is the largest of six geographic combatant commands of the US armed forces, reiterated his government's "commitment" to the treaty, the DFA said.
The US has said several times it would uphold the treaty and support Southeast Asian countries resisting China’s pressure in the South China Sea.
It pointed out that an armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces would "trigger" its obligations under the treaty.
In his conversation with Locsin in April this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the applicability of the MDT to the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to assert its massive claims despite an arbitration court invalidating its historical basis.
The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
The US has many times called for a peaceful resolution of the disputes and for respect for freedom of navigation in the crucial waterway.
Meanwhile, Aquilino also "expressed the US INDOPACOM's readiness to support vaccine delivery in the Philippines" amid the country's battle against COVID-19, the DFA said.
As of Aug. 3, Washington's COVID-19 assistance to Manila amounts to over P1.37 billion ($27.5 million), its embassy said.