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Duterte to boost China, Japan ties post-VFA

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President Rodrigo R. Duterte -- REUTERS

THE Philippine military will boost defense ties with allies in the region including China, Japan and Australia after President Rodrigo R. Duterte ended a military agreement with the US on the deployment of troops for war games, its new chief said on Wednesday.

“We can live without the visiting forces agreement,” Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Felimon T. Santos, Jr. said. “We have lived before when we lost the bases agreement. Nothing bad happened to us.”

The tough-talking Mr. Duterte on Tuesday formally notified the US of his decision to pull out of the VFA, the first time he has scrapped a military deal with the former colonial power that he had criticized for treating the Philippines “like a dog on a leash.”

His decision came after the US Embassy canceled the visa of his former police chief, Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa.

Mr. Duterte had pushed for the Philippines to be less economically and militarily dependent on the US, which he accuses of hypocrisy in its criticism of his deadly war on drugs.

Mr. Duterte ordered his chief diplomat on Monday evening to send the termination notice. It will take effect in six months.

Mr. Santos said the Philippines would boost ties with China, with which it has a sea dispute over islets in the South China Sea.

It will also increase military engagements with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia to fill the void left by the VFA, he said.

Mr. Santos said the Philippines would try to build its own military capability, noting that the military had been receiving P20 billion yearly under a modernization program.

He said war games with the US will proceed in May unless Washington wishes otherwise. The event falls within the 180-day notification period, he said.

Also yesterday, Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra said Mr. Duterte does not need Senate concurrence to end the VFA.

“Although a treaty is considered part of the law of the land, it does not belong to the class of ordinary statutes that pass through the entire legislative process,” he said in a group phone message. “Its abrogation is not similar to the repeal of an ordinary statute.”

‘HOLLOW’ DEAL
He also said the Supreme Court was unlikely to entertain a planned lawsuit questioning the termination of the visiting forces agreement (VFA) due to separation of powers.

“Whether the President should at least consult the Senate is manifestly a political question that the Supreme Court will certainly refuse to resolve,” Mr. Guevarra said.

The Justice chief said the Constitution does not require the Senate to agree before the Executive could end a treaty.

He added that ending the VFA would make the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US “practically useless” and the Mutual Defense Treaty a “hollow agreement.”

But the country survived the termination of the military bases agreement in 1991, he pointed out. “There’s no reason why we shall not survive the termination of a mere visiting forces agreement.”

The Philippine Senate on Monday adopted a resolution urging Mr. Duterte to reconsider his plan to terminate the military deal pending its review.

Mr. De la Rosa, who led his anti-illegal drug campaign before he became a lawmaker, did not vote.

Both Mr. Duterte’s allies and critics at the Senate and House of Representatives earlier said he should end the VFA, which the two nations signed in 1998, for reasons weightier than the cancelation of a political ally’s US visa.

Mr. De la Rosa was also considered to be among those responsible for the detention of Senator Leila M. de Lima, a staunch critic of Mr. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

The VFA governs war games between Filipino and American soldiers here. It also allows the US government to retain jurisdiction over American soldiers accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless the crimes are “of particular importance” to the Southeast Asian nation.

The US Senate last year passed a resolution asking the Philippine government to release Ms. De Lima. It also sought to block the entry and freeze the US assets of officials behind drug-related killings and Ms. De Lima’s “wrongful detention.”

US President Donald Trump also signed into law last year the nation’s 2020 budget, which includes a clause allowing the US secretary of state to ban the entry of Philippine officials behind Ms. De Lima’s detention.

Ms. De Lima has been in jail since February 2017 for drug trafficking. — Vann Marlo M. Villegas





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