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.”


UK relatives of Daesh ‘Beatles’ victims relieved as trial nears

Updated 13 min 5 sec ago

UK relatives of Daesh ‘Beatles’ victims relieved as trial nears

  • The evidence regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey was transferred to Washington immediately after Tuesday’s court ruling
  • The pair, who have been stripped of UK citizenship, are in the custody of US forces in Iraq

LONDON: Relatives of two Britons killed by a Daesh cell on Wednesday welcomed a breakthrough that advances the US trial of two Londoners accused of their brutal deaths.
The families of Alan Henning and David Haines said a ruling by the London High Court permitting the UK government to share evidence with US authorities about the suspects was a “huge result for us.”
“We have only ever wanted to see these two men being held accountable and brought to justice through a fair trial for their alleged actions,” they said in a statement released by the charity Hostage International.
The evidence regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey was transferred to Washington immediately after Tuesday’s court ruling.
The pair, who have been stripped of UK citizenship, are in the custody of US forces in Iraq.
Kotey and Elsheikh’s four-member cell was dubbed “the Beatles” by their captives due to their English accents. They are accused of torturing and killing victims, including by beheading, and Daesh released videos of the deaths for propaganda purposes.
A two-year legal impasse concerning the suspects was broken last month when Attorney General Bill Barr said they would be spared execution if convicted after trial in the United States.
The United States wants to try them for the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig, during 2014-2015.
Taxi driver Henning and former aircraft engineer Haines, who had both gone to Syria to do aid work, were beheaded in 2014.
Another of the cell’s alleged victims was British photojournalist John Cantlie, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and remains missing.
Cantlie’s sister Jessica Pocock told of the relatives’ intense frustration at the long legal wait.
“At times we felt absolutely desperate as to whether the legal system was ever going to be able to bring these two to justice — wherever they may be,” she told BBC radio.
“That was always terribly important to us to have a proper, fair trial. The families need nothing less than a fair trial,” she said.
The US Department of Justice welcomed the court ruling and expressed gratitude to Britain for transferring the evidence, although a trial date has yet to be set.