US frowns over Duterte’s decision to scrap troop deal

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has often criticized U.S. security policies while praising those of China and Russia. (AFP)
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Updated 12 February 2020

US frowns over Duterte’s decision to scrap troop deal

  • Signed in 1998, the VFA allowed a large number of US troops to enter the country, exempting them from passport and visa regulations
  • Duterte’s spokesperson, Salvador Panelo: Reliance on another country for our own defenses will ultimately weaken and stagnate our defense mechanisms

MANILA: The US on Wednesday expressed disappointment over the Philippines’ decision to do away with the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a move which is expected to have a significant impact on the alliance between the two countries, experts and officials said.

“We are disappointed by the decision of the Philippines,” a senior administration official said in an email to Arab News on Wednesday.

“The US shares a long history with the government and people of the Philippines, and recognizes that regional and global security is best served through the strong partnership that is enabled by the VFA.”

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper shared the same views, saying that it was “unfortunate” that the Philippines had decided to terminate the pact.

Signed in 1998, the VFA allows a large number of US troops to enter the country, exempting them from passport and visa regulations so that they can participate in military activities within the Philippines.

Commenting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision, Esper said it would be “a move in the wrong direction” in terms of deterring China’s expansionism in the region.

“I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction as we — both bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region — are trying to say to the Chinese ‘you must obey the international rules of order’,” he said, adding that the move could also have an impact on the “longstanding relationship we’ve had with the Philippines for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries.”

He acknowledged receiving the notice of termination, which takes effect within 180 days.

“We've got to read it. We’ve got to digest it ... We’ve got to work through it, and we’ll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time.”

Despite this development, the US government said it would continue to work with the Philippines “to strengthen this relationship in a way that benefits both our countries.”

In a stark contrast, the US Embassy in Manila said on Tuesday that Duterte’s decision to end the VFA was “a serious step with significant implications for the US-Philippines alliance.”

The move has also sparked serious concerns regarding the Philippine army’s capabilities, and security in the region.

“It's another step toward pivoting to China as the Duterte administration has done since its early days,” Rikard Jalkebro, a security expert from the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told Arab News.

In terms of its impact on foreign policy, Jalkebro said it was odd considering the long-standing relations with the US.

“Despite their colonial history, the relationship between the US and the Philippines has been very good. Other colonial powers have more problematic relations,” he said, adding that Washington had been a “stabilizing factor in the Asia-Pacific with its alliances (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan & the Philippines).”

In the Philippines, he said, the US military had helped with intelligence, training and providing supplies in countering insurgency and terrorism, and working toward disaster relief.

“Therefore, domestically this decision will be catastrophic in the sense that despite US assistance since Sept. 11, 2001, the fight against terrorism and insurgencies has not been going well. The idea that this will be conducted without the support/assistance from the US will likely be a great challenge for the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Jalkebro said.

“I doubt that China or Russia are interested in helping out with this issue. However, if that is the new approach and you add the reluctance and disrespect for human rights (in terms of leaving the International Criminal Court and the ‘war on drugs’) it is a very disappointing and problematic road to go down,” he continued.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., however, said that the country could survive without the VFA.

“We can live without VFA. We have lived before without (military) bases agreement ... nothing happened to us,” he told reporters following the confirmation of his appointment, adding that it would make the AFP more invested in building its own capabilities.

In Malacañang, Duterte’s spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, said it was about time the Philippines strengthened its defense capabilities. 

“Reliance on another country for our own defenses against the enemies of the state will ultimately weaken and stagnate our defense mechanisms,” he said in a statement.

“Our studied action is consistent and pursuant to our charting an independent foreign policy, with our foreign relations anchored solely on national interest and the general welfare of our people.”a


Cross-class marriage urged to tackle Indonesia poverty

Updated 21 February 2020

Cross-class marriage urged to tackle Indonesia poverty

  • Country ranks sixth among those with greatest wealth inequality: Oxfam

JAKARTA: A senior Indonesian minister has suggested that poor people should marry someone of higher social status to reduce poverty.

Muhadjir Effendy, the coordinating minister for human development and cultural affairs, told a meeting on the national health program in Jakarta on Wednesday that he would ask Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi — who also attended the meeting — to issue an edict recommending the move.

Effendy said that the edict could prevent the emergence of “new poor households” and provide Indonesia’s majority Muslim community with a new interpretation of the principle that one should marry a person with a compatible socioeconomic background for the sake of equivalence (kaf’ah) between prospective spouses.

The principle, he said, makes poor people marry among themselves and “automatically give birth to a new poor household.”

The minister on Thursday clarified that his intention with the “intermezzo” statement was to kick-start a social movement to break the cycle of poverty in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s poverty rate declined to below 10 percent for the first time in the country’s history, in September 2019, according to the latest data available from the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS).

The BPS sets the poverty line at $32.13 per person per month, or an average of $1.07 per day.

FASTFACT

President Joko Widodo frequently requests his ministers to come up with ideas to accelerate the anti-poverty programs and close the country’s income inequality gap.

President Joko Widodo frequently requests his ministers to come up with ideas to accelerate the implementation of poverty alleviation programs and close the country’s income inequality gap, which has widened over the past 20 years.

In September, the level of inequality in Indonesia measured by the Gini coefficient stood at 0.380, improving by 0.004 points from the previous year, according to the BPS. The index ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality.

An Oxfam report in 2017 showed that in the past two decades, the gap between the richest and the rest of the population in Indonesia had grown faster than in any other country in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is ranked sixth among the countries with greatest wealth inequality, according to the UK-based NGO.

Oxfam said that the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the poorest 100 million people. Inequality is slowing down poverty reduction, dampening economic growth and threatening social cohesion, it said.

However, economists said that suggesting the poor pursue a Cinderella story to graduate from their low-socioeconomic status was not the solution that Indonesia needed to reduce poverty and tackle income inequality.

“How would the state manage such domestic affairs? Even parents could not choose for their children,” Enny Sri Hartati, a senior researcher at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), told Arab News on Thursday.

Indef Deputy Director Eko Listiyanto said that there was no guarantee that Effendy’s proposal, if approved, would be effective in tackling poverty. “There is no urgency for such an edict . . . the root of the problem lies with the issuance of economic policies that widen inequality as they only benefit a small group in the society,” he said.

Listiyanto said that the government was unable to drive upward mobility as the majority of its policies revolved around populism rather than empowerment. He called on the government to stop making regulations that served only oligarchs.

“It would be better to improve the national education system to prepare the next generation for their economic leap. That move would be far more sustainable compared with issuing the marriage edict,” he said.

Pieter Abdullah Redjalam, research director of the Center of Reform on Economics (CORE) Indonesia, said that Effendy’s idea of a cross-class marriage edict showed that he was out of touch with reality.

“He seems to forget that there is a very wide gap between the poor and the rich,” Redjalam said. “The poor are generally trapped in the poverty cycle. They cannot go to school, so they stay poor.”

Redjalam echoed Listiyanto’s recommendation of opening access to and improving the quality of Indonesia’s education system to reduce poverty in the long term. “It is a shame if the former education minister does not understand that,” he said, referring to Effendy.