MANILA - The Philippines has yet to formally notify the United States of its intention to unilaterally withdraw from the two countries' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) two weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the move, Manila's top diplomat said Thursday.
At a Senate inquiry about the Philippines' military pacts with its longtime ally, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said, "We have not yet sent notice of termination, but we are prepared to do so."
Salvador Panelo, the spokesman of Duterte, had earlier claimed that the process to scrap the VFA has already started.
Duterte's decision to pull Manila out of the VFA, which was signed in 1998 to provide governing rules for the stay of American forces in the Philippines, stemmed from the cancellation of the US visa of his ally, Sen. Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa. The US did not cite the reason for the former police chief's visa cancellation, but it happened after American senators passed a resolution that sought to impose some sanctions against Philippine officials responsible for the detention of Duterte's staunch critic, Sen. Leila De Lima.
"I have prepared the notice of termination... But I will specifically send it only upon the direct order of the President and no one else," Locsin said. Prior to his appearance at Thursday's legislative hearing, the foreign minister said it was right for Duterte to consider abrogating the VFA.
A provision in that agreement mandates a party to notify the other regarding its intent to withdraw from the pact at least 180 days before its effectivity.
Locsin said Philippine foreign officials may meet next month with their US counterpart to discuss the matter. "In March, we will start talking to them in view of the negotiations," he said.
'SAVE' THE DEFENSE TREATY
But Locsin stressed before the senators the importance of maintaining an alliance with the United States.
"I will make every effort to save the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Without that, our sovereignty will be under threat to foreign aggression," he said, referring to the 1951 pact of Manila and Washington on which the VFA and the more recent Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014 are anchored.
Locsin noted between 2016 and 2019, US military financing for the Philippines amounted to $267.75 million. And from 2020 to 2021, the US plans to spend some $200 million for aircraft training and development in the Philippines.
Locsin said that absent the VFA, US officials will find it hard to ask its Congress to appropriate funds for these projects for the Philippines.
Among other benefits, the MDT guarantees that Manila and Washington will come to the aid of each other if one is attacked by a third party.
The VFA and the EDCA enforce and operationalize the MDT.
SUBJECT TO REVIEW
But despite touting how the military pacts benefited the Philippines, Locsin said the VFA needs to be reviewed.
"Let us review it to have the mutual respect that underpins mutual defense," he said, noting that Duterte was upset over how several American senators demanded for the release of administration critics whose detentions were even sanctioned by the Philippines' high court.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was also "advocating" for a review of the MDT to iron out a "disconnect" in the interpretation of the treaty.