Now, truly ‘nada, zilch, awan’
As it turns out, US President Donald Trump can’t be bothered by the Philippine government’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, giving the lie to noises from Malacañang that he had been trying to save the deal but that President Duterte was firm on throwing it out.
Trump’s expression of unconcern over Malacañang’s notice of termination of the VFA—and worse, of relief at saving “a lot of money” in getting rid of the agreement that governs the presence of US troops in the Philippines—makes the situation truly awkward. The subtext should be clear to even Sen. Bato dela Rosa: The exertions of Philippine officials starting from when Mr. Duterte threatened the Americans in January to “correct” the supposed wrong of his, Bato’s, cancelled US visa or else, amount to nothing. As in, borrowing from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s vocabulary, nada, zilch, awan, etc.
Earlier, the on-again, off-again stance of the Philippine government vis-à-vis the VFA effectively demonstrated the messy state it is in, illustrating yet again not only how badly served the President is by his people but also how indifferent he and his people are to public opinion, whether here or abroad. His foreign secretary, who should otherwise be leading the Cabinet in mouthing streamlined statements so as to disabuse a frustrated public of the notion of a government operating in an addled fashion, shouted abrogation of the agreement (channeling his boss’ siga style) and, within hours, switched positions and counseled review of the same.
And the discordant exchange last weekend between the defense secretary and the Malacañang mouthpiece served to underscore the dismayed observation that no one was, is, minding the store:
Salvador Panelo: President Duterte is instructing Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to tell Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin to send the notice of termination to the US government.
Lorenzana: This is fake news. Secretary Locsin has not seen the order yet, according to Secretary Medialdea. None. Nada. Zilch. Awan. Wala. Anggapo.
Meanwhile, the Senate appeared to find its voice and, in apparent contradiction of the President’s position, issued Resolution 312 expressing its “sense” that the VFA should first be reviewed instead of precipitately terminated. But no sooner had Mr. Duterte made good on his stance as Terminator than Senators Imee Marcos, Cynthia Villar and their ilk sought to get back on the right side of their patron by having their “yes” vote changed to abstention. Incredible? Only in the Philippines.
The Feb. 11 notice of termination began a countdown of 180 days, or six months, until the agreement expires.
Activist groups have long decried the VFA for its questionable provisions that include waived visa and passport requirements for US troops; tax-free importation of equipment, materials and supplies by the US government; and free entry of US military aircraft and vessels into the Philippines. The VFA also authorizes the US government to retain jurisdiction over any of its military personnel who commits a crime while in the Philippines. A case in point involved then Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith who was charged with and convicted of raping a Filipino woman—code-named “Nicole”—and who was moved from the Makati City Jail to the US Embassy in the dead of night by then US Ambassador Kristie Kenney.
“We challenge the President to really pursue [his threat of termination] because it is the assertion of our national sovereignty, and not just because a friend of his is disadvantaged,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said last month.
Under the VFA, the Philippine Army, Navy and Air Force have been holding some 300 joint activities with the US military every year, training in such aspects as external defense, counterterrorism, and disaster response. Apart from the Balikatan exercises, there are also the joint drills Kamandag and Sama-Sama and the bilateral air contingent exchanges.
Philippine troops are likewise trained in intelligence-sharing and surveillance, and it is acknowledged that US forces helped in retaking the besieged Marawi City from the Maute terrorists in 2017.
In brief, the VFA has its strong and weak points, the latter vividly standing out in the context of a former colony still shackled by its colonized past. Yet the US government’s “soft” presence is also manifested in sundry forms of humanitarian assistance, such as what was displayed in the aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013.
A renegotiation of the VFA to make it as close as realistically possible to an agreement between equals is the correct way to go in this fraught issue. Using the nullified US visa of the chief executor of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs as a bludgeon was a laughable gesture. And a reckless and dangerous move in the face of China’s aggressive dream of empire.
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