In their first conversation since Lloyd Austin became the U.S. defense secretary, he and Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana reaffirmed their nations’ commitment to a decades-old military alliance in a phone call Wednesday, officials said.
Lorenzana said he discussed bilateral ties and security concerns with Austin, who was named as the chief at The Pentagon by Joe Biden, the new American president. The two defense secretaries, according to Lorenzana, also discussed security concerns in the South China Sea. Tensions have increased there since Beijing passed a law last month that empowers its coast guard to use force against foreign ships in those contested waters.
“Secretary Austin reaffirmed the commitment to the Philippines-U.S. alliance through the Mutual Defense Treaty and the agreement regarding the treatment of U.S. Armed Forces visiting the Philippines,” Lorenzana said in a statement, referring to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a bilateral pact established in 1999 that governs visits to the Philippines by U.S. military forces.
Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the VFA cancelled after Washington revoked the visa of a senator who, while serving as his national police chief, had launched the government’s deadly war on drugs. In June, Duterte suspended his cancellation order amid increasing Chinese threats in the South China Sea but by November called for taking another six months to determine the status of the VFA.
“Both sides committed to sustain dialogues amidst the pandemic and strengthen cooperation between the two defense establishments,” Lorenzana said, adding they agreed to meet face-to-face soon.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the discussions underscored the “value the VFA brings to both countries.”
“The secretaries discussed the importance of enhancing the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ capabilities and increasing interoperability between the two militaries through a variety of bilateral security cooperation activities,” Kirby said in a statement issued on Wednesday morning (Manila time).
He stressed that the discussions focused as well on “upholding international rules and norms, to include the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.”
Kirby was referring to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that went in favor of Manila and struck down Beijing’s expansive territorial claims, including waters that reach the shores of other claimant countries.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office just days before the ruling, initially ignored calls to enforce it or try to raise the issue with Beijing. Instead, he distanced Manila from Washington, its traditional ally.
Duterte sought to ingratiate himself with China and went to Beijing on several state visits. Those visits led to hundreds of millions of dollars in fresh investment pledges tied to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative – China’s strategy to build a modern-day Silk Road through a network of ports, railways, roads and trade routes.
But Duterte shifted course and last year used the U.N. General Assembly to state that the ruling on the South China Sea was “beyond compromise” and already “part of international law.”
While China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam the Philippines and rival Taiwan – claim parts of the potentially mineral-rich waterway. Indonesia is not officially a party to the dispute, but is at odds over Beijing’s claims to parts of the sea that overlap on its territorial waters.
On Tuesday, the Philippines’ new military chief, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, said he would order more military assets deployed to the disputed region to protect Filipino fishermen in light of the new coast guard law passed by China.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier strike groups the Theodore Roosevelt and the Nimitz conducted dual-carrier operations by coordinating maneuvers in a highly trafficked area of the South China Sea, the Pacific Fleet said.
In Manila, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, an opposition lawmaker who is among the most vocal Philippine politicians critical of China, called on Lorenzana to be more assertive in dealing with China.
“We should focus on enforcing our laws in our own waters because China will interpret and implement its law the way it pleases,” Hontiveros said on Wednesday.
“We should step up our game by protecting the livelihood and economic interests of our compatriots in the West Philippine Sea,” she said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
She welcomed the government’s assurance that the Philippine Coast Guard as well as the military would ensure the protection of Filipino fishermen, but insisted their fears should be taken seriously.
“The DND better start listening to our fisherfolk,” she said, using an acronym for the Department of National Defense.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.