The Duterte administration sent mixed signals on coming up with an “arrangement” on defense matters with the United States (U.S.) when it recently suspended for another six months the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
In a statement on Nov. 11, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., addressing White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, said:
“[M]y President, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has instructed me to convey with the appropriate formality his decision to extend the suspension of the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement by yet another 6 months, to enable us to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our mutual defense.”
Source: Department of Foreign Affairs, Statement of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. on VFA Extension, Nov. 11, 2020, watch here
The reason Locsin cited for the extension of the suspension in the Nov. 11 letter to O’Brien — which is for both countries to “find a more enhanced…mutually agreeable…and lasting arrangement” on defense — contradicts previous pronouncements by Duterte and Malacañang.
On Feb. 11, the date of the termination notice, then presidential spokesperson and concurrent Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said the president “will not entertain any initiative coming from the U.S. government to salvage the VFA.”
The VFA is a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the U.S. that outlines the terms and conditions on the entry and visit of U.S. troops in the country. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: The Visiting Forces Agreement, explained)
In subsequent media interviews, Panelo said Duterte was “not open” to renegotiation. Nor was the latter eyeing new military agreements with other countries. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Palace negates AFP chief, says PH ‘not open’ to new military agreements)
Quoting the president, Panelo said in a Feb. 12 media interview:
“Hindi pu-pwedeng forever tayong…relying — umaasa tayo sa ibang bansa sa ating depensa eh. Kailangan palakasin natin ang ating puwersa, mga resources natin. Tumayo na tayong mag-isa (We can’t be forever relying — we depend on other countries for our defense. We need to strengthen our own forces, our resources. Let’s stand on our own).”
Source: ABS-CBN News, Duterte may also scrap EDCA, says Panelo: ‘Mukhang ayaw niya na rin’ | DZMM, Feb. 12, 2020, watch from 0:23 to 0:44
In a separate interview, the former spokesperson said the president had “carefully studied the termination” of the agreement.
Duterte himself, in a speech on Feb. 26, said the Philippines had “no business being a republic” if it cannot “survive as a nation” without the “might and power” of the U.S. military.
Even after talks between Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez and his counterpart on coming up with an agreement more in line with the president’s “thinking,” Panelo said Duterte’s position “remains unchanged.”
But on June 1, Locsin informed the U.S. Embassy in a diplomatic note of the government’s decision to temporarily suspend the termination of the VFA “in light of political and other developments in the region.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte changes tune on terminating PH-US VFA)
As stated in the June 1 note, the suspension is valid for an initial six months (until Dec. 1) and may be extended for another six months, after which “the tolling of the initial period in Note Verbale No. 20-0463 dated February 11, 2020 (terminating the VFA) shall resume.”
Hence, with the Nov. 11 extension, the termination of the VFA will take effect “69 days after 1 June 2021,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a message to reporters.
In a statement welcoming the development, the U.S. Embassy said the “U.S.-Philippine alliance remains vital to our robust, deep-rooted bilateral relationship” and that the U.S. will “continue to partner closely with the Philippines to strengthen our mutual security ties.”
Department of Foreign Affairs, Statement of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. on VFA Extension, Nov. 11, 2020
Department of Foreign Affairs official Twitter account, SFA @teddyboylocsin Statement on VFA Extension, Nov. 11, 2020
Office of the Presidential Spokesperson official Facebook page, “On the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States,” Feb. 11, 2020
Teodoro Locsin Jr. official Twitter account, “@DFAPHL The Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of the United States has received the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement…,” Feb. 11, 2020
Official Gazette, Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Government of the United States of America Regarding the Treatment of United States Armed Forces Visiting the Philippines, Feb. 10, 1998
ABS-CBN News, Duterte may also scrap EDCA, says Panelo: ‘Mukhang ayaw niya na rin’ | DZMM, Feb. 12, 2020
Presidential Communications Operations Office, Interview with Presidential Legal Counsel and Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo by Michelle Ong – Early Edition/ANC, Feb. 13, 2020
RTVMalacanang, Oath-Taking of the NCCA Officials and Presentation of the 12th Ani ng Dangal Awardees (Speech), Feb. 26, 2020
CNN Philippines, HAPPENING NOW: Legal experts, diplomats, and former and incumbent officials weigh in on the termination of the [VFA], Feb, 28, 2020
Office of the Presidential Spokesperson, Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Salvador S. Panelo, March 2, 2020
Teodoro Locsin Jr. official Twitter account, “I issued this diplomatic note to the US ambassador. It has been received by Washington and well at that…,” June 2, 2020
U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, Statement of the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines on the Suspension of the VFA Termination, Nov. 12, 2020
(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)