President Joe Biden of the United States hopes to meet President Rodrigo Duterte in person, an envoy of the Philippines said on Monday, as a troops agreement between Manila and Washington remains up in the air.
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 or VFA, said Manila's ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez.
"President Biden wrote to 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.
Meanwhile, faculty members of the University of the Philippines College of Law reminded President Rodrigo "to act in the best interest of the Philippines and the Filipino people" as they urged him to retract his controversial statements on the West Philippine Sea.
In a statement, the educators said the following statements of Duterte "betray the interests of the country he swore to protect."
– The 2016 Arbitral Award is a mere scrap of paper that should be “thrown to the wastebasket”
– China is “in possession” of the West Philippine Sea
– Chinese fishermen are free to fish in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said he did not have access to Biden's letter, when asked for more information during the briefing. "I will ask and inquire," he said.
Last February, President Duterte said Washington must "pay" a fee he did not disclose, 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, 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.
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.
"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,” Romualdez said.
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, 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,” Roque said.
"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 wants 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 Southeast 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.
Romualdez said the Philippines continued to be an “important ally” of the US and it would like to keep it that way.
“They have reached out to us on helping us in every way they can,” he said.
As Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Philippines should make its own map that would counter China’s nine-dash line claim in the West Philippine Sea, Sen. Risa Hontiveros urged the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to name and identify the rocks and features of the Kalayaan Island Group to assert the Philippine claim.
Speaking in an interview over ANC, Sotto said he came across an article saying that the Philippines should make its own map.
"They (China) made their own nine-dash line. Let’s make our own map. Let’s insist on our own and then God forbid that they cross the line, the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) will kick in. So, I think it’s a matter of really just setting our foot down," said the Senate leader.
Sotto said he was eyeing a bill that would assert the country’s own claims over contested areas.
Hontiveros said she believed the Philippine claim over WPS would be strengthened if the names, features, and coverage of the territories claimed by the Philippines were all clear.
In international law, she said. maritime and territorial claims would arise from named and defined pieces of land or rock.
'Sobriety in discussions'
Meanwhile, the chairperson of the House of Representatives Committee on Disaster Resilience on Monday called for sobriety in public discussions over the West Philippine Sea.
Leyte Rep. Lucy Torres-Gomez, the panel's chairperson, made the appeal as she raised economic concerns over calls for the government to be more aggressive in dealing with Chinese military vessels that have been spotted in various reefs inside the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Torres-Gomez said that while it was easy for the public to focus on its aggressive activities in the WPS, the people should at the same time look at the broader picture if the country continued to agitate, and even anger, China.
“There are economic repercussions if we continue to insist that China give in to our demand for them to get off our waters. Let us not forget that China is the Philippines’ biggest export and import partner,” she said.
She noted that in March 2021 alone, the Philippines exported $1.8 billion and imported $1.2 billion to and from China. “Our economic ties are both our strength and vulnerability. We are not even talking about loans or vaccines.”
"We urgently call on President Duterte to immediately RETRACT his statements and recall his duty to act in the best interest of the Philippines and the Filipino people," the UP College of Law Faculty said.
The signatories of the statement include maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, and former Environment undersecretary Antonio La Viña.