MANILA: The Office of the President of the Philippines has defended Rodrigo Duterte’s demand for payment from the US to retain the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Manila.
Duterte’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, said during a press briefing on Monday that the Philippines president had “the nation’s interest in mind” when he made his remarks.
“It was not extortion but a just demand for better compensation for the continued presence of American troops and equipment in the country,” Harry Roque said.
“This is pushing for the national interest of Filipinos and since there are a lot of expenses to address COVID-19,” he said.
Duterte came under heavy criticism for his remarks on Saturday night, with several commentators calling his latest tirade against the VFA “embarrassing” and akin to the Philippines “extorting money from its long-time ally.”
The VFA provides a legal framework through which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.
Experts say that without it other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.
Duterte notified Washington in February last year that he was canceling the deal amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a US visa. But he has extended the termination process, which US President Joe Biden’s administration will now oversee.
Representatives from both countries have been meeting to iron out differences over the military deal.
However, citing a 2018 study by the Stimson Center, Roque said that the Philippines was “getting less” in terms of military assistance from Washington compared to other countries such as Pakistan who were “relatively new allies” of the US
The study, “Counterterrorism Spending: Protecting America While Promoting Efficiencies and Accountability,” showed the amount sent in counterterrorism aid to 12 countries by the US, from 2002 to 2017.
Afghanistan topped the list with $97.8 billion, followed by Pakistan with $16.4 billion, while the Philippines remained at the bottom with $3.9 billion.
According to Roque, the amount received by the Philippines was “small change compared to what the other countries got, for instance, Pakistan.”
“When did they (Pakistan) become an ally of the United States? They (Pakistan) don’t have any basis to say they have long-standing ties with America, unlike Filipinos who died (alongside their American counterparts) during World War II in the Death March. But how much is the US giving to Pakistan? $16.4 billion.”
“We think we should get something similar or close to that amount, but definitely not the amount we are currently getting,” he said.
The US and Philippines established diplomatic ties in 1946 with the MDT signed in 1951, laying the foundation for the security partnership between the two countries.
The US established its relations with Pakistan in 1947 and has since been an ally of the South Asian nation.
Roque also cited Washington’s assistance to Turkey, saying that while he “does not have the figures,” the US was “paying a huge amount for their military presence in Turkey.”
He further justified Duterte’s remarks by citing the “principle in international law” that says that “a state incurs state responsibility when it uses a territory in a manner injurious to another state.” He said that the presence of American troops “makes the country a valid military target by enemies of the US should a shooting erupt.”
“That’s what the president is saying. That if we get caught in a shooting war between America and its enemies, we will be affected by the conflict,” Roque said, adding that this could result in the Philippines incurring great damage.
If Washington failed to meet the demands, Roque said: “The president has been clear, he wants compensation. If the Americans don’t agree, there’s the president’s previous declaration that he will terminate the VFA.”
On whether Duterte had consulted with his defense and foreign affairs chiefs before making the announcement, Roque said: “The president said he would terminate the VFA a year ago. He’s entitled to make that decision. He’s the sole chief architect of the foreign policy.”
Other than military aid, the Philippines is also a recipient of education, health and humanitarian assistance from the US.
“Over the past 20 years, the United States — the world’s largest provider of bilateral assistance in health — has invested nearly $582 million in the Philippine health sector, and has provided nearly $4.5 billion in total assistance to advance the country’s development goals,” according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
International security analyst Stephen Cutler told Arab News that the VFA addresses “all kinds of activities” of the US military.
“The massive aid provided by the US after disasters uses US military goods, equipment and personnel. None of that would likely be available without VFA. So USAID would still help, but with chartered civilian flights, and civilian personnel. USN ships might bring supplies, but stay in international waters, with PN boats ferrying foods and goods to shore,” he said.