VFA talks highlight Philippines's security value
Talks are set to open this month for refining the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement, which was ratified in 1999 to lay down rules governing the temporary stay and activities of their military personnel in each other’s territory.
Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. disclosed Monday the negotiations are likely to start late this month. He said: “I am narrowing down the issues and soon we will meet... and iron out whatever differences we have.”
With the turnover to a Democratic administration in the US, speculations are rife on how President Biden would engage a resurging China and reach out to the rest of Asia, including the Philippines lying on one side of the South China Sea roiled by maritime disputes.
How Biden and Duterte, who have not met, deal with each other is being watched. The coming VFA talks, which could be contentious, will serve as an initial feeling out of each other by proxy.
In this preliminary probing, the President may do well to just give his foreign secretary broad guidelines and let him navigate the details with his counterpart.
US State Secretary Antony Blinken stressed last month the importance to the Philippines of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty should it be attacked in the South China Sea, some 88 percent of which is claimed by China under its dubious nine-dash line.
Blinken’s statement came as the Philippines protested China’s new law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in what it claims to be its territory. That could be a hint of how the White House sees the security value of the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific region.
Locsin said in an interview on ANC’s “Headstart” that he would press that the maritime Code of Conduct being negotiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations “will never exclude” the US.
“With that, you have the assurance of a balance of power in the region and we negotiate how we’re gonna deal with each other in this or that event, accident and so on,” he said.
The need for the VFA was felt after the expiration in 1991 of the Phl-US Bases Agreement, the closure of the installations and the application of the constitutional ban on foreign bases and forces unless allowed by a treaty ratified by the Philippines and the other country.
The mother treaty, which is the MDT, that binds the US and the Philippines to come to each other’s succor and challenges the resolve of the two partners in case of an armed attack by an external force has never been tested since no such attack has happened.
Another major point is whether the retaliation against the attack on the partner is automatic. It turned out it is not. According to US officials, such retaliatory action is still subject to constitutional processes. But the MDT itself is not under renegotiation in the coming talks.
Coping with the unexpected
On Feb. 11 last year, Duterte served a unilateral notice of termination of the VFA after the cancellation of the US visa of Sen. Bato dela Rosa, his protégé who was the national police chief under fire for extrajudicial killings linked to the police’s war on illegal drugs.
Before the 180-day termination notice ran out, Duterte announced in his televised pandemic report two days after Christmas: “If they (the US) fail to deliver a minimum of 20 million vaccines, they better get out – no vaccine, no stay here.”
Duterte has withdrawn his threat that the VFA will be terminated if the US does not give the Philippines at least 20 million doses of vaccines. At $20 per dose, that would have cost $400 million.
He issued that ultimatum after his emissaries to then State Secretary Mike Pompeo failed to get a firm commitment for Pfizer vaccines. The delay was traced later to Philippine health authorities’ not acting fast on the drug firm’s emergency use authorization (EUA) papers.
The snafu must have been solved or overtaken by events since some 117,000 Pfizer doses are now expected to arrive this month. Although small in number, the vaccines will be used to launch finally the much-delayed mass inoculation.
The task force led by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. has announced that shipments of various brands are in the pipeline to build up by yearend to 144 million doses, enough to vaccinate 70 percent of the high-risk and adult population to achieve herd immunity.
It is not clear why Galvez said the vaccination will/can be completed by yearend when other officials, such as Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, said earlier that the full rollout may take from two to five years.
Galvez said that although the minimum target is 148 million doses for at least 70 million vaccinees, the government is shooting for a bigger number.
Dominguez mentioned that they expect some spillage, which looks like a more realistic attitude since the organization put together for the massive nationwide operation is doing it for the first time.
Handling of the vaccine could encounter unexpected problems. Bad weather and other disturbances (like typhoons and floods) or power failures could knock out storage systems and slow down movement of people and the vaccines.
Since different vaccines will be circulating in batches, some of them could be problematic. We’ve read, for instance, that some vaccines should not be shaken as some people may instinctively do. Or some vials may be thawed without being used, and thus wasted.
How are records of vaccinees to be kept and retrieved when needed? Most of the drugs (except Jannsen of Johnson & Johnson) are to be injected in two doses at 3- to 4-week intervals. Must the second dose be of the same brand, or may the second dose be just any brand available?
A vaccinee may have adverse reactions, such as dizziness, breathing problems or fever while still in the vaccination centers improvised in school buildings, auditoriums and gyms. What should be done? What if the adverse side effects are experienced at home?
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