The United States on Tuesday welcomed the decision of the Philippines to hold off the suspension of the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, saying the continued alliance between the two countries would strengthen “the rules-based order that benefits all nations in Indo-Pacific.”
The US government made the statement after Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Monday announced that President Rodrigo Duterte decided to again suspend the decision to scrap the VFA, Manila’s bilateral agreement with Washington, governing the status of visiting American soldiers participating in military exercises with their counterparts in the Philippines.
Locsin said the suspension would be for a further six months while the President "studies, and both sides further address his concerns regarding, particular aspects of the agreement".
Meanwhile, a US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Ronald Reagan has entered the South China Sea as part of a routine mission, the US Navy said on Tuesday, at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, which claims most of the disputed waterway.
China frequently objects to US military missions in the South China Sea saying they do not help promote peace or stability, and the announcement follows China blasting the Group of Seven nations for a statement scolding Beijing over a range of issues.
"While in the South China Sea, the strike group is conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units," the US Navy said.
"Carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the US Navy's routine presence in the Indo-Pacific."
The carrier is being accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh and the guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey, it added.
Also, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would get six more months to review the advantages and disadvantages of having a VFA with the United States.
"With the additional six months, we will further review the pros and cons of the VFA, especially regarding various concerns of mutual importance to our two countries with the end in view of helping the President arrive at an informed decision on the matter," he said in a message to reporters.
"Our bilateral cooperation with the US is geared towards upholding our national interest and to the extent necessary to enhance the Philippines’ defense capability," he added.
The VFA became effective on May 27, 1999 upon ratification by the Philippine Senate, but the US government regards the VFA to be executive agreements not requiring approval by the US Senate.
The VFA is an agreement in support of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries, which was established on August 30, 1951 to provide mutual support in case of foreign attack. (See full story online at manilastandard.net)
“We welcome the Government of the Philippines’ decision to again suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement.”¯ Our alliance continues to contribute not only to the security of our two nations, but also strengthens the rules-based order that benefits all nations in the Indo-Pacific,” the US Embassy in Manila said, in a statement.
The US Defense Department also lauded the Philippines for the third suspension of the decision to abrogate the VFA which had been due to expire in August.
"The Department welcomes the government of the Philippines' decision to again suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
"We value the Philippines as an equal, sovereign partner in our bilateral alliance. Our partnership contributes not only to the security of our two nations, but also strengthens the rules-based order that benefits all nations in the Indo-Pacific," he stressed.
The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA, which provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises.
Having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defense of the Philippines, but strategically for the US when it comes to countering China's increasingly assertive behavior in the region.
Last year, President Duterte decided to cancel the VFA after his ally Senator Ronald dela Rosa denied a US visa, but he has repeatedly suspended the expiration date.
The latest suspension comes at a time of continued tensions between Manila and Beijing over disputed waters in the South China Sea and a US announcement last week that the Philippines would be among countries that would receive millions of COVID-19 vaccines it is donating.
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez earlier said that the VFA had been enhanced to make it acceptable and mutually beneficial to both countries.
China has ramped up its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, including building artificial islands and air bases.
In related developments, a leader of the House of Representatives welcomed the decision of President Duterte to extend the suspension of the abrogation of the VFA.
Rep. Ruffy Biazon of Muntinlupa said the extension of the suspension of the termination for the purposes of evaluating the VFA was a prudent decision on the part of the President. He said it will give a chance for the PH-US security partnership to continue and hopefully improve.
"This is significant in the light of the issues in the South Sea/West Philippine Sea involving Philippine interests. The US is expected to actively move in the region due to their Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Strategy in the years to come, so our engagement with them has strategic importance," said Bizon, vice chairperson of the House committee on national defense.
But House Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate shared a different view.
"The six month extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement may be a means for Pres. Duterte to appease the United States government and court its favor behind his selected successor in the 2022 elections," said Zarate.
He also said another extension was not surprising.
"It emanates straight from the Janus-faced foreign policy playbook of the Duterte administration in the run up to the next elections. While it continues to pursue a vassal-like relations with China, it nonetheless continues to maintain its policy of appeasement with the US. This is not an independent foreign policy as our Constitution mandates," he said.