By Jojo Rinoza and Basilio Sepe
The Philippines said Friday it was considering the possibility of terminating a long-running military pact with the United States, after Washington cancelled a U.S. visa for the former national police chief behind President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial drug war.
Both the Philippine foreign and defense secretaries indicated they were working toward ending the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). On Thursday, Duterte threatened to terminate the pact because he was angry that the U.S. had cancelled the visa for ex-police chief Ronald dela Rosa, now a Philippine senator.
In a statement issued late Friday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he would consult with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on the matter and “discuss with the president the various scenarios concerning the possible termination of the VFA.”
Under the 1999 agreement, the U.S. and Philippine militaries have undertaken joint exercises and training, as well as boosted bilateral cooperation amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea and security threats from Muslim militants in the southern Philippines.
Earlier on Friday, Locsin, the top Philippine diplomat, posted a message on Twitter about the issue.
He said he was departing for Washington D.C. “on unrelated matters,” but that as Philippine chairman of the VFA, he had called Lorenzana, the Philippine vice chairman for the agreement, “to start the process of terminating” the pact.
Approval by the Philippine Senate is required before the country can sign treaties or international agreements, but the government is not required to obtain the legislative body’s consent to terminate those pacts, Locsin said.
“The termination of the VFA may be unilaterally initiated by the Philippines,” Lorenzana, the defense chief, said. “[S]uch a termination does not need the approval of the Philippine Congress. All that is required is that a notice of termination be served to the U.S. government. The termination shall take effect 180 days after the date of the notice.”
In an earlier statement, Lorenzana said it was obvious that Duterte was affronted when the U.S. cancelled the visa for dela Rosa, the president’s former long-time police aide who became the national police chief shortly after Duterte came to office in mid-2016.
Police forces under dela Rosa launched a bloody campaign against suspected drug dealers and users. Human rights groups have criticized Duterte’s war on illegal drugs, with the death toll standing at nearly 6,000, according to official figures.
“I can understand why President Duterte is peeved by the cancellation of Sen. Bato’s visa because of alleged extrajudicial killings in connection with the drug war. Most [e]specially that Bato was specifically targeted,” Lorenzana said, using dela Rosa’s nickname.
“The ball is in the U.S. hand. Let’s see how they react to President Duterte’s statement,” he added.
Sung Kim, the American ambassador to the Philippines, already sought a meeting with officials in the Duterte administration to discuss the issue.
On Friday, spokespeople for the U.S. Defense Department and the State Department did not immediately respond to inquiries from BenarNews seeking comment on the Philippine threat to cancel the treaty and an explanation for why Washington had canceled the visa for dela Rosa.
President Duterte conveyed the threat to terminate the pact during a speech to former communist rebels in central Leyte province on Thursday night.
“I’m giving notice and they begin to count. I’m giving government and the American government one month from now. We will talk, I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Duterte said.
If the U.S. government failed to undertake the “correction” he was demanding, he said, “I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement.”
The president also hit out at a provision included in the 2020 U.S. budget that sought to prohibit the entry into the United States of Filipinos involved in the detention of Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima.
De Lima is a leading critic of Duterte’s drug war. She was jailed over allegations that she took bribes from drug lords to fund her senatorial campaign.
She has consistently denied the allegations, saying she was jailed as political payback by Duterte. There has been no hard evidence presented in court against her yet.
“I am hurting because of that,” Duterte said Thursday night. “They refused to believe de Lima is a criminal. That she was collecting money to use in her campaign.”
“And now she’s lying to death, pretending she’s innocent. These foolish Americans, crazy, crazy, cowards, idiots, crazy,” the president went on in his profanity-laden speech. “They believed that de Lima’s case was just fabricated by the government.”
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.