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Duterte backed off threat to end US pact due to virus, tensions

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By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte backed off his threat to end a 21-year-old military pact with the US on the deployment of troops for war games due to “heightened super power tensions” and as the world grappled with a coronavirus pandemic, his chief diplomat said on Wednesday.

“A man who does not change his mind cannot change anything,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. said at a news briefing, noting that Mr. Duterte had run on the slogan ‘change is coming.’

“But in the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, the time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world,” he said.

Mr. Duterte suspended the termination of the visiting forces agreement with the United States “in light of political and other developments in the region,” Mr. Locsin said in a diplomatic note to the US Embassy in Manila dated June 1.

The suspension of the military pact is effective for half a year and may be extended by six more months, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense towards enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Mr. Locsin yesterday.

US President Donald J. Trump has blamed China, where the novel coronavirus was first detected late last year, for the contagion, further heightening tensions between the two countries.

The US Embassy has welcomed the Philippine decision, noting that the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and US has benefited both countries.

The country’s diplomats earlier advised Mr. Duterte about the risks of ending the military pact. The tough-talking Philippine leader on Feb. 11 announced his decision to end the deal after the US visa of Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, his former police chief, was canceled.

Lawmakers earlier asked the Supreme Court to issue jurisprudence on whether the President can end a treaty without Senate concurrence.

Mr. Duterte’s decision, sparked by the revocation of a US visa held by a former police chief who led his bloody war on drugs, was supposed to take effect in August.

His decision could have complicated US military interests in the broader Asia-Pacific region as China’s ambitions rise.

‘TWO STEPS BACK’
Some Filipino senators have sought to block the move, arguing Mr. Duterte had no right to unilaterally scrap international pacts the country’s Senate had ratified.

“With every nation in the region still struggling with this unprecedented health crisis, maintaining strong and tested alliances makes a lot of sense,” Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a lawyer and research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center, said in a e-mailed response to queries.

“This is true for both the Philippines and the US, especially for the US if the tension between them and China escalates further,” he added.

Mr. Duterte’s reversal could be a sign that he’s worried about China’s growing military assertiveness, including an incident where a Chinese vessel allegedly pointed a weapon at a Philippine ship and China’s creation of research facilities at two reefs, Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University said by telephone.

“President Duterte decided to make a one step forward, two steps backward move,” he said.

Senator Franklin M. Drilon yesterday said the lawsuit filed at the Supreme Court by some senators including himself would continue.

“The petition we filed is for declaratory relief and mandamus where we asked the Supreme Court to uphold the power of the Senate over treaty termination,” he said in a statement.

“The fact that the VFA is reinstated will not render our case moot and academic. The case stands,” he added.

The VFA is important to the overall US-Philippine alliance and sets out rules for US soldiers operating in the Philippines, a former US colony.

Washington has called the relationship “ironclad,” despite Duterte’s complaints that include allegations of US hypocrisy and ill treatment.

Ending the VFA complicates Washington’s efforts to maintain an Asia-Pacific troop presence amid friction over the presence of US personnel in Japan and South Korea and security concerns about China and North Korea.

Some lawmakers in the Philippines are concerned that without the VFA, two other pacts that make up the long-standing US alliance with Manila would be irrelevant, namely the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement made under the Obama administration, and a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty.

Salvador S. Panelo, Mr. Duterte’s former spokesman, had called the VFA a one-sided deal that only benefits the US.

The Philippine move toward its long-standing treaty ally “alarms no countries in Asia and the rest of the world,” Mr. Locsin said.





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