COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, center, and Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, left, unfurl the Balikatan flag at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, May 2017. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 June 2020

COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal

  • President Rodrigo Duterte said in February that he was going to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed in 1998
  • Global circumstances and the pandemic prompted a presidential U-turn, according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

MANILA: The COVID-19 outbreak and “heightened superpower tensions” lay behind Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to keep a vital defense pact with the US, his Foreign Affairs secretary said on Wednesday.

Duterte said in February that he was going to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed in 1998. It allows US troops to enter the country and exempts them from passport and visa regulations so that they can participate in military activities within the Philippines.

But global circumstances and the pandemic prompted a presidential U-turn, according to remarks from the Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. 

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense toward enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Locsin told the media. “But in the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in a time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world.”

Locsin sent a note to the US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim on Monday, informing him that the Philippines was suspending the revocation of the VFA which was due to take effect in August.

The US welcomed the decision to suspend the termination, saying that the long-standing alliance had benefited both the countries and that it looked forward to the “continued close security and defense cooperation” with the Philippines.

Locsin also said that the government’s action “alarms no country in Asia and the rest of the world” and that “on the contrary, it greatly reassures everyone.”

In separate interviews, Manila’s ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also cited the pandemic and rising tensions in the South China Sea as the reasons for Duterte’s change of heart.

“The assistance of the US will increase the government's capacity to fight the pandemic,” Lorenzana replied when asked in what ways it would help the Philippines.

A report from the US Congressional Research Service in March said that the decision to terminate the VFA raised “uncertainties about the future of US-Philippine military cooperation, an essential part of the U.S. security posture” in Asia.

“The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and the termination of the VFA would not change that status,” the report added. “However, broad aspects of US-Philippine cooperation, including military exercises and US access to Philippine military facilities could be made difficult or impossible without the legal protection of the VFA.”

Malaysia to reinstate pilots once Pakistani licenses OK’d

Updated 07 July 2020

Malaysia to reinstate pilots once Pakistani licenses OK’d

  • 30 percent of pilots grounded including 107 in foreign airlines

KUALA LUMPUR: The Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) will reinstate Pakistani pilots as soon as Pakistani authorities verify their permits, an official told Arab News on Monday, after their temporary suspension due to a fake license scandal. 

Pakistan grounded almost 30 percent of its pilots last week after the country’s Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said that they might have falsified their qualifications. 

Pakistan has 860 pilots, 107 of whom work for foreign airlines.

“The CAAM has sent two letters requesting verification from PCAA (Pakistani Civil Aviation Authority) as well as to inform them on the temporary suspension of Pakistani license holders in Malaysia,” Nurilya Anis Rahim, a public relations officer at CAAM, said in an email. 

Rahim added that the pilots’ licenses had been put on hold until further information from the PCAA.

“We are currently still waiting for a response from PCAA. Once an official confirmation has been made, we will reinstate these pilots with immediate effect.”

Captain Chester Voo, CAAM CEO, announced that it would temporarily suspend 20 Pakistani pilots employed with “local operators” such as flying schools, flying clubs and training organizations.

Rahim said that the decision was taken to ensure the safety and security of Malaysia’s civil aviation industry. 

“It is to ensure that all employed pilots in this country hold a valid license and abide by Malaysia’s Civil Aviation Regulation.”

The UK, EU and Vietnam have banned Pakistani pilots and barred Pakistan International Airlines’ (PIA) operations as well.

One analyst said that Malaysia’s stand was part of its “zero-compromises” approach.

“Malaysia has always taken a conservative stance which includes a zero-compromise on the integrity of certification and qualification of pilots,” Rizal Kamaruzzaman, a Malaysian aviation expert and executive director of Tindakan Strategi, told Arab News.

He added that the joint verification approach was an excellent opportunity for regulators in Pakistan and Malaysia to “clean” the register and weed out all pilots with dubious qualifications. 

“The move by the CAAM will also alert the rest of the airlines and general aviation aircraft to review the technical crew manifest flying into Malaysia and will definitely have a ripple effect on the aviation sector.”

He urged aviation regulators from other countries to learn a lesson from Pakistan.

“The trust and mutual recognition among regulators are a sacred pact to ensure safety for aircraft, pilots, crews, engineers and the main client that are the passengers are not compromised anywhere around the world,” he said.