US access talks: it’s PR


By Ellen Tordesillas

In the media briefing last Monday announcing the start of the talks between the Philippines and the United States on “a possible framework of agreement on the increased rotational presence” of U.S military in the Philippines, the question that was repeatedly asked was, “What does the U.S. wants that the existing Visiting Forces Agreement does not cover?”

The VFA is an agreement between the Philippines and the United States regarding the treatment of U.S. Armed Forces Visiting the Philippines. It was signed in 1998 by Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard and ratified by the Philippine Senate.

It covers a whole range of issues including the contentious criminal jurisdiction. It does not set a limit to the number of American visiting troops in the country and their length of stay.

This was how Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta and Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo, both members of the negotiating panel, Batino answered the question:

Question: Preliminary negotiations; requirements identified by both side that made them decide to come up with framework agreement; requirements that are not covered by VFA and TOR (Terms of Agreement) that necessitate this separate framework agreement.

Sorreta: We are not renegotiating the VFA in this process. We are having consultations regarding the VFA separately, incidentally with the same person, Amb. Eric John he is in charge.

(We will) try to come up with guidelines that will clarify some of the issues particularly raised by the Supreme Court so we are not reinventing anything,… Ii think we will do a briefing on VFA soon, separately.

Question: Why the need for a separate agreement?

Batino: We have seen in the past that when countries execute agreement, they build greater momentum to the strengthening of their relationship. In this case we, both countries would want a strengthening of the alliance to the execution of this agreement, executing defense and military agreements strengthens alliances. It is a position of the department that a stronger alliance with the US creates a stronger defense posture for the Philippines.

Sorreta: If I may add to that when we agreed on a policy with the United States on increased rotational presence, you have been hearing about this policy for past years so we are now going to be institutionalizing this policy. The contemplated format agreement will indicate what are the activities under increased rotational presence, when you talk about increased rotational presence, it seems a good policy but still abstract. We are going to put down on paper what can be done, what can’t be done, where it will be done, where it should not be done, you are going to see eventually modalities like we said parameters and types of activities.

Like what Undersecretary Batino said each activity will be subject to approval, this framework agreement by itself does not authorize any activity, it sets the parameters, it’s up to the Philippines to approve each activity, and if it feels it is to our benefit and it is not detrimental to our interest or to our constitutional laws, then there is that mechanism for approving it.

Batino: May I add something, as pointed out the Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA have already provided the legal framework covering the temporary presence of US forces in the Philippines and also the corresponding access to facilities, to Philippine facilities. However we can take advantage of this opportunity to provide clearer safeguards for the protection of our national concerns, and these concerns we will discuss with the U.S. panel come negotiations.

Question: What are the things that you can’t do with existing agreements which makes it necessary to enter into new agreement, why need to enter into this one?

Sorreta:I believe that’s been asked and answered but there are things that we can do under the existing the agreements we have, but we have a policy now with the United States on increased rotational presence and we want to institutionalize it.

The Aquino government has already given its consent to the United States and the so-called negotiation is just going through the process. It’s a done deal.

This is just to address criticisms that the government is giving what the Americans want. Which is really the case.

It’s all PR.