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MANILA, Philippines — A plan by the Armed Forces of the Philippine (AFP) to open the doors for military cooperation deals with countries other than the United States appeared to have been shelved, judging by the latest statement of President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson, Salvador Panelo.
On Friday (Feb. 14), Panelo said the AFP would rely on the strength it would build by itself.
“We are not shifting alliances,” said Panelo in an interview with CNN Philippines. “We are removing alliances. We’re on our own, by ourselves,” he said.
“As the President said, it is time we stand on our own feet,” Panelo said. “The President is correct, we have to strengthen our own resources,” he added.
While the administration paints it as an act in the direction of an independent foreign policy, critics said it was just part of Duterte’s effort to pivot to China and Russia as he had been saying since 2016.
Gen. Felimon Santos, AFP chief, said early this week that the Philippine military would boost engagements with other countries, like Japan and Australia, as it moves forward from the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.
Being among the weakest in the region, the Philippine military is currently trying to build up a credible defense system in what is seen as a feeble response to China’s expansion in the West Philippine Sea.
Aside from needing to defend Philippine maritime territory against Chinese aggression, the AFP also has its hands full battling communist rebels and terrorists.
The VFA, which was ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999, governs the conduct of visiting American forces and serves as a foundation for joint exercises between the US and Philippine militaries.
The accord has allowed the AFP to conduct joint activities with the US that enhance its capability to counter national security threats. It also allowed American soldiers to aid in disasters and calamities quickly.
All these would be gone in six months after the Duterte administration’s notice of termination of the agreement takes effect. A security expert said it would set back the AFP by a few decades.
Jay Batongbacal, a security expert, said the Philippine military “now has to look for an equal amount of resources” that the US has been providing through the VFA. These included exercises, training programs, acquisition of materiel and supplies.
The Philippine military, Batongbacal added, “will have to look for even more resources in order to fill up what it will lose.”
“All that will be lost basically set back the armed forces’ modernization by decades, given that I don’t expect Congress to give the military the kind of money it needs in order to carry out its objectives,” he told INQUIRER.net.
“They can’t get opportunities for training exercises. They can’t get out of the Philippines,” Batongbacal said.
“We have new jets but they are not equipped for long travel and to be stationed abroad for exercises because it takes out significant part of your assets,” he added.
Panelo, however, expressed confidence that the AFP would be able to build strength in no time.
“Everything can be learned and can be bought. That’s why we will boost our force and start procuring high-tech weapons,” he said in Filipino.
This is not mirrored in the military budget, however. For 2020, the lion’s share of the AFP budget was allotted to personnel costs and pension, like in previous years. Most modernization projects are still awaiting funds.
For 2020, the US had planned to spend over $200 million (about P10 billion) on aircraft, training, equipment and infrastructure for the AFP. More than $45 million (about P2 billion) is in the pipeline as foreign military financing. With VFA termination in the horizon, it isn’t clear if these funding plans would push through.
The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the United States are also at risk of being junked by the Duterte administration, according to Panelo.
“If it’s the President’s position that we no longer need alliances with others and we can stand on our own, those would definitely be gone,” Panelo said of the two defense pacts.
Duterte’s decision to end the VFA early this week detracts from advice given by his foreign and security officials to review the agreement instead of junking it, which communist rebels and militant leftist groups are supporting.
“While the Philippines has the prerogative to terminate the VFA anytime, the continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any benefits were it to be terminated,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had said in a Senate hearing last week.
Terminating the VFA, Locsin had said, would have a negative impact on the Philippines’ defense and security arrangements and the “overall bilateral relations” between the Philippines and United States.