Reckless gambit

And so the Philippine government has started the process of terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, after an incensed President Duterte lashed out last week at the reported cancellation of the US visa of his longtime Davao City police chief Ronald “Bato’’ de la Rosa, now a senator.

Mr. Duterte gave the United States one month to “correct’’ Bato’s visa cancellation, but the presidential rumbling was apparently at alert level 4 such that the following day, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. disclosed on his Twitter account that he had already conscripted Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to start the ball rolling, while also praising his boss’ outburst as a “good move.’’

One can almost hear the drumroll as presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo soon chimed in: “The process for terminating the same has started. The President feels that we cannot sit down and watch idly.’’ The urgency had nothing to do with the fate of the thousands displaced by Taal Volcano, or the spread of the deadly coronavirus strain from Wuhan. It’s about recovering Dela Rosa’s US visa so he can, per his earlier lament, visit his relatives and continue to watch his fellow senator Manny Pacquiao’s boxing fights in Las Vegas.

Even for a nation that has grown accustomed to the unconventional and unbelievable, this VFA-for-visa tantrum was as jaw-dropping as it can be. Scuttling a 21-year-old bilateral agreement, along with 70 years of defense, security and diplomatic alliance with the United States so that one travel-itchy senator can regain his US visa? “Pray tell, where is the connection?’’ Sen. Panfilo Lacson was quick to retort, hitting the nail on the head as he pointed out that a US visa is a conditional authorization granted to a foreigner while the VFA is a “bilateral agreement between the PH and the US that went through some careful diplomatic discussion.’’

Irony of ironies, Bato’s nemesis, the militant Left, was all for abrogating the VFA and “all vestiges of a neocolonial control of the US.’’ But even they were crestfallen that this was all for the President’s love of Bato. “What kind of foreign policy is that? Terminating a treaty based on the personal interest of Duterte’s ally?” asked Bayan secretary general Renator Reyes Jr.

For Jose Cuisia Jr., former Philippine ambassador to the United States, trivializing foreign policy this way was mind-boggling. “You will put at risk the relationship between the US and the Philippines because of that? To me, it doesn’t make sense,” he said in an ABS-CBN interview.

Malacañang attempted damage control by saying there were other factors behind Mr. Duterte’s move, such as the US ban on officials behind the imprisonment of Sen. Leila de Lima and the bloody drug war.

Bato is certainly right—that “I do not deserve this bargain’’ and that “this is not all about me.’’ The move also seems to play into Mr. Duterte’s vaunted pivot to China, an observation shared by a number of defense analysts such as professor Jose Custodio who told ANC that Bato’s visa was “just an excuse’’ for scrapping the VFA, and that this episode is more of an indication of where Mr. Duterte’s loyalty lies. Whatever the pretext, it’s China that stands to gain most from the piecemeal dismantling of the Philippines’ longstanding military and security ties with the United States.There is basis to call for a review of the VFA, or the other bilateral agreements with the United States such as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Over the years, these agreements have been assailed for having lopsided provisions in favor of the more powerful partner. The United States retaining custody of errant US soldiers and the fact that the Philippines gets mostly hand-me-down planes and military equipment have shown the unequal status between the two “friends, partners, allies.’’

But the VFA has also helped upgrade the capability of the Philippine military, and gave a helping hand in the country’s fight against terrorist groups Abu Sayyaf and Islamic State. Apart from the security aspect, Custodio pointed out that part of the goodwill generated by the VFA is that the United States has always helped the Philippines in times of disasters and calamities. With wear and tear on Philippine planes and equipment during disaster response, the United States acts as a vital force multiplier in making timely response to victims of disaster, Custodio said.

Lorenzana, more than just “understanding’’ the President’s fury over Bato’s visa, has the duty to impress on his boss a more sober, rational and measured perspective on this reckless gambit. The stakes are far bigger and graver than a bruised presidential ego, let alone the sense of entitlement of one bellyaching senator.

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