Perhaps the question to be asked is not simplistically whether the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) is good for us or bad for us, but rather do we need a defense treaty with the US at this time, regardless of feelings over the fact that the US has some strategic advantage for itself by bonding with us? We have to be realistic about our status and capabilities before we thump our chests and bellow to be left alone to our own little devices against the big, cruel world.
Under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America signed in 1951, both nations declared support for each other if either the Philippines or the United States were to be attacked by an external party. But because of US initiatives and aggressive participation in world conflicts and threats — communism in the 1950s-1960s; the Vietnam War and other wars in Asia in the 1970s; the rise of dictatorships through the 1980s, exacerbated by pandemic financial/economic problems and rising oil crises — anti-US sentiments rose worldwide and so also in the Philippines, maybe in instinctive fear of the too-powerful US.
Was it eerie coincidence that Mt. Pinatubo erupted in furious rage in June 1991, when the Military Bases Agreement of 1947 was expiring, and the Philippine Senate was studying possible renewal or termination of the agreement? Clark Air Base, the biggest US military establishment in the Philippines, was practically the center of the calamity. Yet the Senate voted not to ratify the new treaty proposed by the administrations of Corazon Aquino (Philippines) and George H. W. Bush (US), and, prodded by the emergency wrought by Pinatubo, all US military personnel in the Philippines were removed from the US bases by the end of November 1992.
The cut-clean removal of US bases in the record time of a year clearly amputated the Philippine military, which at that time relied heavily on American military training and equipment. A modus vivendi had to be designed for a smoother flow to total independence from the US physical presence, while minding the patriotic and ambitious (and indubitably noble) goal of the Philippine military and political governance for identity and self-sufficiency. Thus was the VFA installed for this in February, 1998.
The VFA defines the treatment of American military personnel when they are in the Philippines. A counterpart agreement which deals with the treatment of Filipino military personnel in the US was signed in October 1998. It complements the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the mother agreement between the Philippines and the US which guarantees that the two countries will provide military aid to each other in case their metropolitan areas or their territories in the Pacific are attacked by a foreign force.
The general terms of the VFA are:
“The agreement provides that the Philippines will take primary jurisdiction over US military personnel who commit or are accused of a crime in the country, unless the offense is related to US security or is only punishable under US law. On the other hand, the US takes primary jurisdiction over their personnel if they commit offenses against US property or security or against fellow US personnel and their property. They also have primary jurisdiction over their personnel in offenses committed in the performance of official duty” (CNN Philippines, “The Explainer,” Jan 28, 2020).
The matter of jurisdictions was tested and strongly protested by anti-bases and human rights activists in two cases: in 2006 when four US servicemen were accused and convicted of a gang rape in Subic Bay Base, and in the 2014 slaying of Jennifer Laude by 19-year-old Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, who had been unaware that Laude was transgender.
Among the other provisions of the VFA are relaxed reciprocal visa and passport policies for US and Filipino military personnel, 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 constitutionality of the VFA has always been an issue for nationalists and lawmakers, and public discussion has been roused in every change of political administration. Whether the VFA transgressed rights and liberties in the Constitution was officially challenged twice: in 2000, the case of which was dismissed, and in 2007, the case of which was finally decided by the Supreme Court en banc in 2009, upholding the VFA constitutional. Yet protests against the VFA will not die, led by the socially-focused and other human rights groups.
But this year, as Taal volcano erupted in January, the VFA issue burst forth to rival attention thanks to the fiery anger of the President of the Philippines himself who announced that he would terminate the VFA immediately — and for what reason? According to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, “President Rodrigo Duterte is serious in terminating the (VFA) agreement due to the US government’s cancellation of the visa of Senator Ronald dela Rosa, under whose term as Philippine National Police (PNP) chief ‘Oplan Tokhang’ (the tactical operations for Duterte’s War on Drugs) was launched,” the Philippine Star of Jan. 25 reported. The background for this is that the US Senate declared support for the release of detained opposition Senator Leila de Lima by withholding travel visas to Philippine government officials who helped put her in jail for allegations of drug trafficking when she was Secretary of Justice.
“Good move. Visas fall under US Justice Department in the Executive Branch. Either they’re serious about US-PH military alliance or not. They can have De Lima after her trial. In fact, they can pass a law making her a US citizen and part of US military so she is covered by VFA,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said on Jan. 25 referring to Duterte’s announcement of immediate VFA termination (Ibid.). How jarring, when on Feb. 6, at a Senate foreign relations committee meeting, Locsin declared a change of heart and said he favors a review of the VFA before termination can be discussed (Philippine Star, Feb. 7).
The Star also quoted Locsin as afterward saying that abrogating the VFA would render the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) “nothing but pieces of paper… When you abrogate the VFA, the MDT can remain and so with EDCA but both will be nothing but merely pieces of paper… as the VFA is the implementing document,” Locsin said upon questioning by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon.
Initially, Locsin said the MDT and EDCA can remain without the VFA, but Drilon advised him to review the Supreme Court jurisprudence, which basically stated that the EDCA can only exist with the VFA, the Philippine Star pointed out on Feb. 7.
The Armed Forces is silent on this latest disturbingly confusing and frightening, dizzyingly changing to-and-fro on such a critical issue as the country’s defense and survival. The AFP knows they need the VFA as yet, for the sake of the Filipino people whom they must protect with their lives if need be.
What now? Our leaders must rise above petty personal concerns and vanities and humbly submit to constraints in our common reality, for the common good.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.