US lauds Philippines’ decision to delay termination of military deal

Mark Esper
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Updated 15 June 2020

US lauds Philippines’ decision to delay termination of military deal

  • It follows a U-turn by Manila on June 3 citing COVID-19 crisis as the core reason

MANILA: US Defense Secretary Mark Esper welcomed the Philippines’ decision to suspend the termination of a vital defense pact between the two countries, reiterating his support for a strong and enduring military alliance between Washington and Manila.

It follows a phone call between Esper and his Filipino counterpart, Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, on Friday, during which he greeted the latter on Independence Day and “expressed his support for the Philippines government decision ... to suspend the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) termination,” said a statement released by the Pentagon.

The two also discussed a range of regional security issues, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South China Sea, counterterrorism cooperation, and the Philippines military’s modernization plan.

The Philippines’ Defense Department (DND) confirmed the conference call between the two officials on Sunday, adding that Esper “expressed his appreciation for (Lorenzana’s) support for the Philippine government’s decision to suspend the termination of the ... VFA.”

Esper also talked about the US making “very good progress” in the development of a COVID-18 vaccine, and Washington’s willingness to share it with US allies and partners, including the Philippines, once available.

Lorenzana, for his part, took the opportunity to share the Philippines’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and expressed appreciation for the medical assistance and donations of medical supplies provided by the US government.

Both sides reiterated their commitment to sustaining dialogue amid the pandemic and strengthening cooperation between the two defense establishments.

On Feb. 11, the Philippines government informed the US Embassy in Manila of its intent to terminate the VFA on Aug. 9, 180 days from the date of notification.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has long been critical of the US, announced the unilateral decision after the Department of State canceled the visa for one of his political allies, Senator Ronald Dela Rosa.

On June 3, the Philippines announced it was temporarily suspending the termination of the VFA, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. saying that the pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions” had prompted the presidential U-turn.

Signed in 1998 and entering into force in 1999, the VFA governs the legal status of US military forces operating in the Philippines and establishes rules by which US troops, vessels, and aircraft may enter the country.

The VFA, and all other bilateral military agreements and activities between the US and the Philippines are supplemental to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951, which serves as the foundation for the bilateral security relationship between the two countries and requires each to come to the other’s aid if attacked by a third party.

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in March noted that “while the termination of the VFA would not abrogate the MDT, it would complicate the Department of Defence’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the treaty.”

Abrogation of the VFA “raises uncertainties about the future of US-Philippine military cooperation, an essential part of the US security posture” in Asia, according to the CRS.

“The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and the termination of the VFA would not change that status... 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,” the CRS report said.

Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said in February that without the VFA, the US “ability to help the Philippines and their counter-violent extremist fight in the (Mindanao) [and] (US) ability to train and operate within the Philippines and with Filipino armed forces would be challenged.”

Pakistan rolls out coronavirus surveillance app for incoming travelers

Updated 11 July 2020

Pakistan rolls out coronavirus surveillance app for incoming travelers

  • 246,351 cases registered since late February

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has developed a mobile app to keep track of travelers entering the country through land routes and airports to ensure a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for those testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

“The app will be rolled out in a few days,” Shabahat Ali Shah, CEO of the National Information Technology Board (NITB), told Arab News this week.

He said the app would help record symptoms of the incoming travelers and keep track of their location. It would also communicate coronavirus test results to them and check if they were violating the self-quarantine requirement.

The government was testing everyone entering the country until recently. Many travelers were kept at big isolation centers established in hotels and marquees for 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus.

According to government officials, the new app will eliminate the costs associated with the old quarantine protocols and maintain a better record of people’s movements.

Pakistan has registered 246,351 coronavirus infections since late February and over 5,000 deaths.

The government has also been carrying out contact tracing to test suspected cases and sent over half-a-million text messages to those who have come into close contact with COVID-19 patients, according to the Ministry of National Health Services.

“We don’t share contact tracing numbers with the public since they keep changing on a daily basis,” Shah said, adding that people suspected to have the disease were requested to get themselves tested.

Discussing the projections, he said the numbers of coronavirus cases would keep changing but that the government’s actions had proved successful in bringing down the country’s infection rate.

“Smart lockdowns in different areas have helped reduce the disease,” Shah said, adding the decision to lock down virus hotspots was taken on the basis of data collected by the NITB.

He said that the COVID-19 curve would flatten if the government properly managed Eid Al-Adha and Muharram processions in the coming months.

According to independent IT analysts, the app would prove ineffective if “big data” was not properly analyzed.

“Developing an app is not a big deal,” Mustaneer Abdullah, an IT expert, told Arab News. “The real task is to extract useful information through the algorithms and break it down in specific categories to achieve the desired targets. The trouble is that government departments lack that kind of expertise.”

He also pointed out that such apps were hazardous to public privacy in the absence of data protection laws since they sought permission from users at the time of installation to access their photo galleries, locations and contact lists to work smoothly.

“The data collected through these apps can also be a goldmine for scoundrels. People working with government departments could leak user information to digital marketers or fraudsters with total impunity.”