Ending VFA: Palace to seek Senate's OK if Supreme Court says so

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 21) — There could still be a chance for the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States to remain in force.

This, as Malacañang promised on Friday to heed the Supreme Court's decision on whether or not the concurrence of the Senate is needed in ending the two-decade-old military agreement. Senators are now preparing a petition asking the high court to finally determine if pulling out from a treaty needs the approval of the Senate. The Constitution is silent on this matter, since it only requires Senate concurrence in the ratification of an agreement.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo told reporters in Malacañang that although President Rodrigo Duterte wants the VFA junked, he would have to obey any order from the Supreme Court.

"Basta kung ano 'yung batas, 'yun ang sundin natin, 'yun ang sabi ni Presidente (Whatever the law says, we will follow, that's what the President said)," Panelo said.

When asked if withdrawing the notice of termination sent to the US would make the Philippines a laughing stock, Panelo said, "Ganoon talaga e, kung ano yung batas yun ang sinusunod natin (That's just the way it is, we have to obey the law)."

He stressed that the Palace sees "no problem" in asking for Senate concurrence if the Supreme Court would require it.

On February 11, Duterte pushed through with sending the US a notice to terminate the VFA despite some senators' appeal that they be consulted. The Senate also passed a resolution calling for a thorough review of the VFA before deciding on its fate.

The VFA, a 1998 agreement between Manila and Washington, legally allows the entry of a large number of American troops, exempting them from passport and visa regulations so they can participate in military activities in the Philippines.

EXPLAINER: The Visiting Forces Agreement

Even Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. earlier said that the continuance of the agreement "is deemed to be more beneficial" for the Philippines. In a Senate hearing, he highlighted benefits the Philippines has been getting from the VFA, including military assistance, financial grants, and deterrence against possible attacks from other countries, among others.

Ending the VFA was Duterte's response to the US' cancellation of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa's tourist visa. The Philippine senator, known to have close ties with Duterte, acknowledged that the revocation of his visa may have something to do with alleged extrajudicial killings under his watch as chief of the Philippine National Police from 2016 to 2018.

The night before sending the US the termination notice, Duterte called the US rude for meddling in the Philippines' local affairs. He cited American senators' demand for the release of Senator Leila de Lima – an opposition lawmaker detained on drug charges -- in what they believe to be part of the Duterte government's crackdown against its critics.

The VFA will be effectively scrapped on August 9 – 180 days from US' receipt of the termination notice. Panelo earlier said there's nothing the US government could do to "salvage" the VFA, while American President Donald Trump made it clear he does not have plans of doing so.

"I view it as, 'Thank you very much. We save a lot of money,'" Trump said in an interview, in response to Duterte's move to junk the VFA.