Duterte: Trump trying to save Visiting Forces Agreement

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 12) — President Rodrigo Duterte has disclosed that United States President Donald Trump is "trying to save" the Visiting Forces Agreement – but he insisted on scrapping the two-decade military pact.

"Ngayon, I’ll make it public, because eh public official ako. Si Trump, pati ‘yung others, are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. Sabi ko, ayaw ko," Duterte said in a speech before local chief executives in Pasay City Monday night.

[Translation: Now, I'll make it public. Because I am a public official. Trump and the others, are trying to save the Visiting Forces Agreement. I said I don't want to.]

He called the US rude for meddling in the Philippines' local affairs, citing American senators' repeated calls for the release of Senator Leila de Lima – an opposition lawmaker detained on drug charges since 2017.

"One is that napakabastos ng Amerikano, talagang sobrang bastos (America is very rude. Extremely rude)," Duterte said. "Imagine demanding the release of De Lima under threat that we will not receive the aid at may kolatilya that all persons who have had a hand in the imprisonment of De Lima will not be allowed to go to the United States."

The US' 2020 budget law includes a provision that bans Filipino government officials involved in De Lima's imprisonment. The American Senate also passed a resolution in January seeking to deny US entry to and freeze the assets of Philippine officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings" and the "prolonged detention" of De Lima.

Malacañang has repeatedly denied that there are state-sanctioned killings, and stressed that the De Lima's drug cases are now being tried by the country's independent courts.

What prompted Duterte to threaten to terminate the VFA in January was the cancellation of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa's tourist visa. Dela Rosa himself said it may have been the final straw following the US' several insults to Philippine sovereignty. He acknowledged that the revocation of his visa it may have something to do with alleged extrajudicial killings under his watch as chief of the Philippine National Police from 2016 to 2018.

The VFA can be terminated via a written notice from either of the countries. Expiration will come 180 days from the time either party notifies the other. But despite Duterte's strong statements ordering an end to the VFA, no notice has been sent to the US.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. in a Senate hearing last week pushed for a "vigorous review" instead, saying the Philippines stands to lose billions of pesos in aid, among other benefits, should the termination push through.

After that hearing, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the President has not changed his mind and is ready to instruct Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to ask Locsin to finally send the notice. Medialdea has not received such order from the President as of writing. Panelo added that Duterte is set to have a phone conversation with Trump soon – but no announcement has been made if it has already pushed through.

Meanwhile, the US Senate Department said a bilateral dialogue with the Philippines is being eyed for March.

R. Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs of the US Department of State, said it's a "worthy conversation to have," flagging what's at stake should Manila ultimately decide to end the military pact — around 300 engagements, joint exercises, and port calls yearly.

The VFA is a 1998 agreement between Manila and Washington on the protocol for American military personnel in the country. Among its controversial provisions are the lax visa and passport policies for American troops and the authority granted to the US government to retain jurisdiction over military personnel if ever they commit crimes locally. Locsin earlier said he will he will insist on negotiating these issues should the VFA be reviewed.

EXPLAINER: The Visiting Forces Agreement