Duterte encourages Cabinet members to boycott travel to the US

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 29) — President Rodrigo Duterte is encouraging Cabinet officials to boycott travel to the United States indefinitely as part of his administration's “toning down” of relations with the Philippines’ traditional ally.

‘Yung mga Cabinet member ko (My Cabinet members), I will ask them to not to go to the United States in the meantime, parang (it’s like a) boycott,” Duterte told reporters Wednesday on the sidelines of the founding anniversary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Duterte made the announcement following his threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US in response to Washington's cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s visa.

But Duterte said that he had made up his mind about terminating the VFA and is no longer waiting for the US to “correct” the cancellation of the former top cop’s visa.

“I am terminating the VFA. I was not joking. The day I said it was the day that I decided it should be terminated,” Duterte said.

The Philippine government has to tell the US in writing that it wants to end the treaty. The agreement will remain in force for 180 days after this notice is sent.

Duterte added that he first thought of terminating the VFA upon learning about the US Senate resolution which called on President Donald Trump to deny US entry and block all US-based transactions of Philippine officials who are involved in extrajudicial killings and the arrest and detention of opposition Senator Leila de Lima.

Duterte insisted that his move was not capricious and that he was doing it for “every Filipino.”

Trump had also signed the US 2020 spending law which contains a reference to a US Senate committee report calling on US State Secretary Mike Pompeo to prohibit the entry of foreign officials involved in the "wrongful imprisonment" of De Lima.

Still under review

Prior to Duterte’s pronouncement on Wednesday evening, government officials had said that they were still evaluating the impact of a possible pullout from the VFA — a 1998 agreement with the US on the treatment of its personnel in the Philippines.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Duterte ally Senator Koko Pimentel, is set to review the VFAs with the US and Australia.

The review will cover the VFA, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, another deal between the US and the Philippines which allows US troops to use and control five bases in the country.

Recommendations by the Senate panel will be forwarded to Malacañang, Pimentel said.

The VFA is seen as a complementary agreement to the MDT, a treaty 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.

EXPLAINER: The Visiting Forces Agreement

Napakahalaga ng agreement na ito (This agreement is so important). The President should be careful when he makes these remarks,” Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon said separately.

Deputy Speaker Johnny Ty Pimentel, a key administration ally in the House of Representatives, also hit the proposed pullout from the VFA as an “impulsive decision.”

Pimentel said the country will lose military and economic benefits if the VFA is terminated.

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had warned that terminating the VFA can make the implementation of the MDT harder, as the relaxed immigration rules and waived fees for the entry of US military equipment would no longer be in place.

Defense analyst Jose Antonio Custodio also warned that China, which has maintained its aggressive presence in the contested South China Sea, may take advantage of the termination of the VFA.

CNN Philippines’ Paolo Barcelon, Rex Remitio and Pia Garcia contributed to this report.