MANILA (UPDATE) - Several senators on Wednesday welcomed the executive branch's decision to suspend the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, noting that the Philippines can benefit from its close ties with the United States especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a diplomatic note to the US Embassy dated June 1, 2020, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said that the suspension is being made "in light of political and other developments in the region."
"Sa akin (for me), and perhaps majority of the members of the Senate, it's a good mentality... Malaking bagay 'yun (that's a big deal)," Senate President Vicente Sotto III told reporters in an online press conference.
"With this pandemic that we are facing, it is not a time for breaking up relations but a time for cooperation, especially longstanding friendships. We have to continue to develop our ties with the United States," Sen. Richard Gordon said in a statement.
"This is an extremely positive development," Sen. Francis Tolentino said in a privilege speech.
"This recent development opens up a multitude of fresh opportunities which strengthens national security and helps deter threats from outside our boundaries for the time being," he said.
Sen. Sonny Angara, meanwhile, said the move is "the safer, more cautious and considered decision in this time of COVID when it helps to be friends with all nations."
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also lauded the suspension of the cancellation of the agreement, saying the Philippines still needs help in defending its shores from "harassment."
"It is a no-brainer that we can't stand on our own and protect ourselves from harassments especially now that Chinese intrusions into our territory particularly in the West Philippine Sea have become commonplace," Lacson said in a statement, referring to the country's exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea.
For years, China has continued to militarize islets that fall within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines despite an arbitration court ruling that invalidated Beijing's claims to nearly all of the strategic waters.
Earlier this year, China launched research facilities in the West Philippine Sea while the country was busy fighting the COVID-19 crisis.
"The last thing that we should lose is the balance of power that the USA, among other allies like Australia and other ASEAN neighbors, can provide to suit our national interest and territorial integrity," Lacson said.
The Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) mandates Washington to come to Manila's defense should it be attacked by other nations. Senators earlier said that the VFA "gives continued relevance to the Mutual Defense Treaty" as it governs over the activities of US troops stationed in the Philippines.
The shift in foreign policy shows President Rodrigo Duterte's humility, Tolentino said.
"This decision of the President is perhaps akin to adjusting his sail... Flexibility is at the heart of effective leadership, and effective leadership is central to good governance," Tolentino said in plenary.
In January 2020, Duterte directed the Department of Foreign Affairs to cancel the agreement after the US revoked the 10-year visa of his decades-long ally Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa.
Dela Rosa said he also "welcomes" the development, but does not intend to ask the US Embassy in Manila if his visa would be reinstated.
"Foreign policies can be flexible at times depending on the realities obtaining in the bilateral, regional, or global arena of foreign relations. That suspension of termination is a welcome development," he told reporters in a text message.
"I haven't applied for a new one yet. [Expiration of my US visa is on] 2022. Hindi ako sumulat kasi hindi ako easy boy (I did not write because I'm not an easy boy)," he said when asked if he would inquire about his cancelled travel document.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the development would not affect the Senate's petition asking the Supreme Court to clarify if the President could pull out from a treaty without the legislative chamber's approval.
"The petition we filed is for declaratory relief and mandamus where we asked the Supreme Court to uphold the power of the Senate over treaty termination," Drilon said in a statement.
"The fact that the VFA is reinstated will not render our case moot and academic. The case stands," he said.
But Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said the Senate should still review the VFA to ensure that it is "fair and pro-Filipino."
"Times are changing very fast, and geopolitics is also changing very fast... It's time to review if it’s still required at this time," he said.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said the coronavirus pandemic and developments at the South China Sea were factors in the suspension of the treaty termination.
“Obviously, the situation on the pandemic is a major concern as far as the Visiting Forces Agreement,” said Romualdez.
“The political reasons obviously is that there are quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea, very clearly we see that, and because of security issues and many things that are happening in that part of the world, both I think our governments have seen that it would be prudent for us to just simply suspend first any implementation of the termination,” the ambassador said in an interview on ANC's Headstart.