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Duterte undecided on whether to end VFA, says Palace

PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo R. Duterte had not decided whether to keep a military pact with the US on the deployment of troops for war games, according to the presidential palace.

The President was still thinking whether the country’s visiting forces agreement with the US would help in case the country’s maritime dispute with China escalates, his spokesman Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. told a televised news briefing on Monday.

“He’s still thinking,” he said in Filipino. “Only the President can decide whether there would be a new VFA or whether it would get dumped.”

Mr. Roque commented on the issue amid reports that the Philippines and US had concluded discussions on their bilateral relations.

He said Mr. Duterte had been studying the military pact for a long time.

“The crafting of foreign policy is clearly not the sole purview of the President,” lawyer and Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center research fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

He noted that under the 1987 Constitution “the state shall pursue an independent foreign policy.” “The President is certainly not the Philippine state.”

While the President plays a role in crafting the country’s foreign policy, the process must still involve experts and professionals “because relations with other states must be anchored on international law and diplomatic protocols,” Mr. Yusingco said.

He noted that the country’s foreign policy direction must not be “founded on the personal relationship or dealings of heads of states.”

Mr. Duterte earlier said his government had veered away from a pro-Western foreign policy direction to protect the country’s national interest.

He said the VFA was “up for renegotiation and that power belongs to the President.” 

“The fate of the VFA cannot be determined by the personal feelings or views of the President,” Mr. Yusingco said. “And neither should it be articulated as merely pro-US or anti-China. It should not even be about siding with western or eastern powers.”

The President last year said he was ending the VFA after the US Embassy canceled the visa of Senator Ronaldo O. Dela Rosa, his former police chief who led his deadly war on drugs.

Philippine authorities also said the President was dismayed by Washington’s condemnation of human rights violations in the country and the calls of American parliamentarians to release opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima from prison.

In February, the tough-talking leader said the US should pay the Philippines if it wants to maintain the military pact.

The termination period has been twice extended. The Philippines said the suspension would give it a chance to bat for fairer terms.

“Given the ongoing troubles in the West Philippine Sea, it is hard to imagine a decision to finally abrogate the VFA,” Mr. Yusingco said, referring to parts of the waterway within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile, Mr. Roque said the President no longer sees the urgency to discuss the South China Sea dispute with ex-Presidents because he was convinced that his foreign policy is “correct and working.” Mr. Duterte planned to seek advice from past Presidents instead of convening the National Security Council (NSC).

Mr. Duterte considered the option before he met with former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who advised him last week to stay friendly with China, Mr. Roque said. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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