Apart from extending the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, the Philippines will sign a “side agreement” or addendum to apply the provisions of the treaty, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Wednesday.
“The VFA will not be changed. There will be a side agreement to implement the provisions of the VFA. Once it is signed by the President, that will be an official document that is attached to the VFA,” Lorenzana explained at a forum ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address.
He expressed confidence that it will be approved by Duterte, who said Monday night he wants to talk to ranking US officials to clarify the longtime ally’s stand and role in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is coming to Manila on July 29 to 30 as part of a tour of Southeast Asia, Lorenzana confirmed. Austin’s trip starts on July 23 and will include stops in Singapore, and Vietnam, according to the US embassy in Hanoi.
The President will most likely sign the VFA, which was extended by another six months last June, after speaking to Austin, the first Cabinet official under US President Joe Biden to visit Manila.
“You know, this Visiting Forces Agreement, its extension is on deck, on the table. Now, I just want to talk to some people in Washington, be it from the Office of the President or the State Department or the Defense Department,” Duterte said.
Meanwhile, the military on Wednesday vowed to support further development of Pagasa Island fronting the West Philippine Sea to protect the country’s sovereignty and biodiversity inside the Kalayaan Island Group against potential foreign invaders.
Lorenzana also said he does not see any hostilities breaking out in the South China Sea despite intensified exercises between the Philippines and the US and their partners in the region.
In a virtual meeting with Palawan Governor Jose Alvarez last Monday, Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Cirilito Sobejana acknowledged the need to turn Pagasa Island into a “logistics hub” to protect the Kalayaan islands’ biodiversity and the livelihood of its fishing communities.
Groups have called on Sobejana to build facilities in Philippine-held areas in the disputed WPS in response to China’s massive reclamation and building of military facilities in several reefs and atolls in the waterway.
The Philippine Coast Guard recently turned back a Chinese military vessel cruising inside the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The Chinese frigate left the disputed waters when challenged by the PCG vessel BRP Cabra.
“We are glad that we are on the same page in the future of the province of Palawan, that we view it as a strategic and critical national security frontier, particularly in the interests of ecological balance and sustainable development,” Sobejana said.
The AFP Chief also lauded the initiatives of the Palawan provincial government to protect the nation’s interest through its proposal to declare the KIG as a protected area under the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (Republic Act 7586).
“We are at a point when we have to stick together as one nation and we are glad that the Provincial Government of Palawan is already on board,” the general added.
Part of the discussion is the further development of Pagasa as a haven for Filipino fishermen as well as a possible tourist destination. It will require expansion and construction of facilities that are aimed at sustaining an increase in economic activity in the island, Sobejana said.
Present in the meeting were lawyer Teodoro Jose Matta, PCSD Executive Director; MGen Rene Diaz, AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, J4; and BGen Rene Raoul Rommel Honasan, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, AJ4.
Military and Coast Guard contingents have launched aggressive maritime patrol within the WPS following the sightings of over a hundred Chinese fishing boats in the perimeter of at least three reefs and atolls in the WPS last month.
“There is a provision in the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) that an attack to another is considered an attack to the other side,” Lorenzana said during the Pre-SONA Forum for the Security, Justice, and Peace Cluster on Wednesday.
“So, the other country will come to the aid of the other country. But, even if there are intensifying exercises between the US and its allies in the region, I do not believe it to be preparation for a coming conflict or war in the South China Sea, because both countries, both superpowers, the US and China, (have) come out publicly that they do not want any conflict there in the South China Sea,” he said.
Signed in 1951, the MDT is an accord that stipulates that the Philippines and the United States would support each other if either of them was to be attacked by an external party.
Lorenzana said hostilities are unlikely as the SCS is a major trade route for ships coming to China.
“And according to (the) World Bank, more than US$6 trillion worth of goods passes that place, the South China Sea, every year,” Lorenzana said.
However, the DND chief said the Philippines can abide by the MDT but emphasized any move to invoke this will be thoroughly scrutinized by lawmakers.
“We will abide by the MDT because it is our country’s treaty with the US and I’m sure any incident there that will require the invocation of (the) MDT will go through the process here in our legislature, our government before we participate in any conflict in the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said.