MANILA (PHILIPPINES): In what could be called the first meeting after President Joe Biden took office, Philippines and US officials met in Manila where the defence apparatus of Philippines expressed that it wants to keep a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, its defence minister said on Thursday.
“We at the defence department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told media.
Thursday’s meeting comes after President Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally cancelled the two-decade-old VFA last year, in an angry response to an ally being denied a visa. It has also reaffirmed the alliance in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The withdrawal period has been twice extended, however, to create what Philippine officials say is a window for better terms to be agreed.
Lorenzana said the VFA, which sets out rules for US soldiers operating in the Philippines, has been vital in boosting the capabilities of under-resourced Philippine forces through dozens of annual joint training exercises.
Its importance was stressed by US counterpart Lloyd Austin during a call with Lorenzana on Wednesday.
Ties between the United States and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte’s rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning U.S. foreign policy, and open embrace of China.
But while the Philippines-U.S. relationship “has always been strong”, Lorenzana said the Southeast Asian nation “should not be made to choose” between Washington and Beijing.
Lorenzana has also expressed concern about a new Chinese law empowering coastguard to fire on what it sees as threats, and repeated U.S. navy patrols that China sees as provocations.
“I told Secretary Austin we don’t want any miscalculations or accidents in the South China Sea because we are right smack there in the centre of conflict,” Lorenzana said.