Malacañang denies 'extortionist' claims, only just compensation in VFA payment

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 15) — Malacañang denied on Monday that the administration is "extorting" from the United States, even after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to end the Visiting Forces Agreement without sufficient compensation.

"Sa mga nagsasabing extortion, hindi po iyan extortion. 'Yan po ay pagtaguyod ng national na interes ng mga Pilipino, at dahil marami po tayong gastusin lalong lalo na sa COVID-19, bakit di tayo sumingil?" Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a briefing.

[Translation: To those who have been claiming that it's extortion, it is not extortion. It is a way of upholding the national interest of Filipinos because we have a lot of COVID-19 expenses, so why can't we ask for compensation?]

Roque reasoned that the Philippines should even be getting an amount close to the $16 billion compensation of Pakistan, which is equivalent to over ₱766 billion. Citing a study by US-based think tank Stimson Center on counterterrorism assistance, he noted that the country has only been getting over $3.9 billion, or over ₱186 billion, as of 2017.

"Ang nakukuha lang natin $3.9 billion. Malaki po ba iyan? Naku, barya po iyan kung ikukumpara sa mga nakukuha ng ibang bansa. For instance, ang Pakistan, kailan nga lang ba 'yan naging kaalyado ng Amerika?" Roque said.

[Translation: We are only getting $3.9 billion. Is that big enough? That's only loose change compared to what other countries are getting. For instance, Pakistan, when did it only become allies with America?]

"We think we should be getting something similar or close to that amount," Roque added, referring to Pakistan's compensation.

However, he clarified that while the amount could benefit the Philippines' COVID-19 response, it is the national government that will pay for the Western vaccines that will be delivered to the country. Roque denied any "inconsistency" with the previous stance of Duterte.

The President warned last December that he will proceed with the abrogation of the VFA if the US fails to produce at least 20 million vaccines for the Philippines.

READ: Duterte to US on VFA: ‘No vaccine, better get out’ 

"There is no inconsistency (in President Duterte's previous statement). I think the President is saying, 'show your commitment to the Philippines by allocating to us vaccines,' but we're not begging for the vaccine because we're going to pay for it," Roque said.

On Sunday, Vice President Leni Robredo slammed Duterte's pronouncement in his speech last week that the U.S. responsibility in the agreement "does not come free."

"Parang extortion lang. Parang kriminal eh, kung gusto mo nito magbayad ka muna," Robredo said in her radio show on Sunday.

READ: 'Parang extortion': Robredo slams Duterte's VFA threat 

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario also said in a statement on Monday that Duterte's stance is a "sentiment that is not shared by our patriotic soldiers and our countrymen who want to defend our West Philippine Sea against China."

Roque, however, claimed that America was "neutral" on the disputed South China Sea, including the Philippines' sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.

The VFA is a 1998 agreement between the Philippines and the United States on the protocol for American military personnel in the country. It is seen to support the Mutual Defense Treaty, another agreement which guarantees that the two countries will provide military aid to each other in case their metropolitan areas or territories in the Pacific are attacked by a foreign force.

Beijing continues to reject the Philippines' 2016 arbitration win over the West Philippine Sea. The U.S. government previously imposed sanctions on Chinese companies militarizing resources and helping the country advance its territorial claims in the disputed territory.