President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was a “move in the wrong direction,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday.
Speaking with reporters just before traveling to Europe, Esper said the notice of termination, which he had already received, was particularly problematic as it came at a time when both the U.S. and the Philippines are urging China to abandon its controversial (and legally indefensible) militarization of vast stretches of the West Philippine Sea, including sovereign waters belonging to the Philippines.
“I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction… as we, both bilaterally with the Philippines, and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region, are trying to say to the Chinese, ‘You must obey the international rules of order. You must obey, you know, abide by international norms,'” Esper said.
“And as we try to bolster our presence and compete with them in this era of great power competition, I think it’s a move in the wrong direction for… the longstanding relationship we’ve had with the Philippines, for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries.”
“But look, we just got the notification last night. We’ve got to read it. We’ve got to digest it… and we’ll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time,” he added.
The VFA’s termination will take effect 180 days after the U.S. had received the notice. The controversial agreement gives the U.S. jurisdiction over criminal cases committed by American servicemen on Philippine soil.
It was late last month when Duterte first said he would terminate the decades-old VFA after the U.S. canceled the visa of his ally, Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who frequently travels to the U.S. Though he appeared to waffle initially, the mercurial Filipino president ultimately pushed through with his plan, despite being warned by at least one ally that the Philippines had “a lot” to lose if the VFA were junked.
Speaking of Senator dela Rosa, the neophyte lawmaker said yesterday that even he was perturbed by the fact that Duterte terminated the VFA because of his visa problems — if only because it meant people were more likely to blame him for the consequences.
“I’m also bothered by it. I am bothered because it appears that I was the reason behind it all, especially because there are people who won’t understand [what happened]. They will crucify you because of what happened,” dela Rosa told Senate reporters in English and Filipino.
He went on to insist that his visa woes were “just the last straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“It was an accumulation of gripes and disrespect that the other party [the U.S.] has done. The president has been thinking about that for a while. You can’t say it was a knee-jerk reaction based on his whims and caprices or whatever. He has thought it through for a long time. You can’t change the president’s mind if he mulled over it for a long time.”