But Washington’s top military officer in Asia-Pacific Admiral Philip Davidson warned ending the security pact would hurt counter-terrorism efforts in Mindanao, putting him at odds with his commander-in-chief.
The 1998 VFA created a legal framework for the presence of US troops in the Philippines and for organizing joint military exercises.
Manila announced its decision Tuesday--a move the US Embassy in the Philippines called a “serious step”--touching off a six-month countdown to the end of the deal.
“If they would like to do that, that’s fine, we’ll save a lot of money,” Trump told reporters at the White House, touting his “very good relationship” with President Rodrigo Duterte.
READ: Duterte to Trump: No to VFA, period
The Palace on Thursday shrugged off Trump’s remark.
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said it was “natural” for Trump to make such comment and he might be expressing his agreement with President Duterte’s view that the Philippines should strengthen its own defense capabilities.
Panelo insisted that the Philippines has gained respect from the US after it terminated the joint military pact, claiming that the Washington needs Manila since their “perceived enemies” are near the country.
Duterte, he added, is determined to abrogate the VFA and will no longer entertain any initiatives from the US to save the deal.
The Palace official also said the President is not keen on forging other military deals with other countries, a possibility that was earlier floated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Famously outspoken Duterte has threatened since his 2016 election to put an end to the Filipino-American alliance, with an eye toward cultivating relationships with Russia or China instead.
He specifically mentioned a desire to do away with the VFA again in January, after the US canceled the travel visa of senator and former national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.
The VFA is divisive in the Philippines, with leftist and nationalist critics arguing it guarantees preferential treatment for US service members accused of crimes.
Its defenders say ending the agreement would compromise the nation’s ability to defend itself and undermine the US goal of containing Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
Davidson on Thursday said he hoped Duterte’s decision to scrap a deal allowing US forces to be based in the country would be rethought.
Manila has given “180 day notice so we have some time for diplomatic efforts,” Davidson said at an event in Sydney. “I hope we can get to a successful outcome.”
Davidson insisted the termination of the VFA would hamper military operations in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao--where separatist and Islamist violence has killed some 100,000 people.
“Our ability to help the Philippines in their counter-violent extremist fight in the south, our ability to train and operate within the Philippines and with Philippines armed forces would be challenged without that visiting forces agreement,” he warned.
Though a landmark peace deal with the largest of the rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was sealed in 2019, the most brutal extremist factions were not included.
Those groups include the Islamic State-aligned BIFF and Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom gang that has been behind some of the nation’s deadliest attacks.
In late December at least 17 people--including soldiers--were injured in a dual hand grenade and IED attack on the island.
The rotating deployment of US troops in the country--coupled with a long-standing mutual defence pact and regular military exercises--is also seen as a bulwark against rising Chinese influence in the region.
Davidson praised the efforts of Indonesia in fending-off Chinese poaching in their waters and called for further cooperation among Pacific nations.
“I’m optimistic that the region is not only waking-up to that aggressive behavior but, more importantly, beginning to take a stand against,” he said.
He warned Australia to be aware of the threat of a Chinese base in the Pacific, which would help project Beijing’s influence well beyond its territorial waters. With AFPREAD: Locsin warns vs. VFA termination, pushes reviewREAD: With or without VFA, Pinoys can live—KokoREAD: VFA sparks confusion at PalaceREAD: DOJ-led unit to assess VFA termination
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