by Mario B. Casayuran and Hannah L. Torregoza
The Senate Committee on National Defense yesterday urged the Executive branch to call the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) to hammer out a national agenda on Philippine foreign relations, as President Duterte threatened to terminate the 1988 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States.
Sen. Gregorio B. Honasan II, committee chairman, said responsible and accredited experts should be invited and included in the discussion of alternatives of a possible foreign policy pivot from the US to China.
One of the issues that should be discussed, according to Honasan, is whether the Philippines has benefited from its military alliance with the US which, he noted, gives a pittance to the country through foreign military sales (FMS) ’while it supported Pakistan – which coddled Osama Bin Laden – to the tune of $50 billion.’’
After arriving from Singapore over the weekend, President Duterte made the threat following a decision of a US aid agency, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MMC), to withhold a decision on a new tranche of anti-poverty reportedly due to concerns over alleged human rights violations in the Philippine government’s campaign to rid the Philippines of illegal drugs.
An initial five-year package from MMC for $434 million had been completed last May.
On the possible repeal of the VFA, Honasan said that the Senate, sitting as a Committee of the Whole, could discuss the issue.
“We could call on higher authorities, the Congress, the Executive branch, and if warranted, activate mechanisms that will help us hammer out foreign, economic, and security policy and repair damaged institutions,’’ he said.
All hands should be on deck, Honasan said, stressing the need for a broad, multi-sectoral approach to the country’s problems.
Honasan also said he had asked the country’s economic and security managers on possible repercussions of a possible move away from the US. He asked them, he said, if the country would survive if foreign investors left and they replied that in a worst-case scenario, it will survive because its fundamentals are solid, but it will pay a very high price – “which I think we can manage with our resiliency as a people. Survivor naman tayo,” Honasan said.
Senator Honasan, a former Army colonel, also quoted Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, Philippine ambassador to China, as saying the word “pivot” is inaccurate.
Sta. Romana, according to Honasan, said that the Philippines is developing an equidistant relationship with the US and China – “some sort of equilibrium.”
“If you work by history, the Philippines has a longer friendship with China. Even before the Philippines became a republic, we had trade with China during the time of Lim Ah Hong,” Honasan quoted Sta. Romana. “But China did not colonize us.”
ARBITRAL RULING ON SCS
Some senators yesterday expressed concern over President Duterte’s reported statement that he would shelve the ruling of the UN Arbitral Tribunal that strengthened the Philippines’ claim to disputed territories in the South China Sea and his threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should clarify what the President meant when he said he wants to “set aside” the ruling of the international tribunal in the light of reports that China has installed weapons systems in seven disputed areas it has occupied in the sea.
Ending the VFA, which allows American troops o join Philippine troops in regular defense exercises, may have a negative impact on the country’s future generations, according to Gatchalian.
Duterte’s fresh tirades against the US came on the heels of the suspension of a $433-million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) for the country’s poverty reduction programs.
As for the tribunal ruling that affirmed Philippine rights in the South China Sea, he said, this will “protect our country, our people, and our future generations,” Gatchalian said.
This shift in the Philippine stand on the ruling “is presumed to have undergone extensive consultation with his foreign policy and defense experts,” the senator said.
Sen. Francisco Pangilinan also called on the President to clarify his position on the ruling.
“The Tribunal in its decision recognized our rights as a nation over some 531,000 square kilometers of our exclusive economic zone and our extended continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS),” Pangilinan said.
He warned of the drastic effect if the country loses this area which “is larger than the entire land area of the country.”
“This area of 531,000 square kilometers of maritime space includes fisheries, oil, gas, and mineral resources found within the area exclusive to us Filipinos. To set aside the Tribunal’s ruling does not redound to our interest as a nation,” Pangilinan said.
“With due respect, such a pronouncement imperils the national interest in favor of China,” he stressed.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said pivoting toward China and cutting ties with the US and the other Western democracies were the President’s plan “all along.” “He was just looking for a pretext to use so that it would appear that he was only provoked to do it,” Trillanes said.
“But the trial balloons have been floated early on when he won last May, and for the past six months, he has been on a propaganda roadshow about it,” Trillanes said.
Honasan said he hopes the President will ensure that all the foreign policies he would carry out will be within the bounds of the Constitution.
“The President is the chief prosecutor of our foreign economic and security policy. As long as it does not violate our Constitution, and serves our national interest, the President exercises certain prerogatives, judgment calls, and makes decisions based on timely, complete, and accurate information from the entire government, the private and public sector, and all available sources, domestic and foreign,” Honasan said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he would vote against the abrogation of the VFA if the issue is brought to the Senate. “We need the US to maintain a balance of power in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Lacson, a former national police chief, said that the training and joint military exercises are important components of the troops’ combat readiness. “There’s a lot to learn from those exercises which we have nurtured over a long period of time. It’s mutually beneficial to both countries that we maintain such alliance,” Lacson said.
Tags: 1988 Visiting Forces Agreement, Gregorio B. Honasan II, Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council, Manila Bulletin, mb.com.ph, News today, Philippine news, President Duterte, Senate Committee on National Defense, Senators seek LEDAC meeting on Duterte threat to end VFA set aside Arbitral ruling on SCS, United States