US President Joe Biden hopes to meet President Rodrigo Duterte and that the Philippines would extend the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), an envoy of the Philippines said on May 31.

Philippine ambassador  to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez at a Malacañang briefing disclosed that President Biden wrote President Duterte on the occasion of  75 years of diplomatic ties between the US and the Philippines in July. 

Romualdez noted that Biden wrote Duterte not only about the strong relationship between the two countries  but also told him that “he hopes he will be able to meet in person” with  President Duterte at some point in time.

The VFA  between Manila and Washington remains up in the air. It provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. 

Experts say without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.

The MDT states the two countries will come to each other’s defense in case their metropolitan areas or territories are attacked. The pact will mark its 70th anniversary in August. 

Romualdez said the Philippines continues to be an “important ally” of the US and it would like to keep it that way. “They have reached out to us on helping us in every way they can,” he said.

Malacañang’s spokesman Harry Roque said he did not have access to Biden’s letter, when asked for more information during the briefing. “I will ask and inquire,” he said.

Last February, President Duterte said Washington must “pay” a fee he did not disclose, if it wanted to keep the VFA with Manila.

Romualdez related that Biden hopes to talk with Southeast Asia leaders before a hopefully in-person meeting in Brunei in November.

He likewise said the US is set to donate COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, and some American drug makers are eyeing manufacturing plants in the country.

“There are many events which show that for the United States, the Philippines is still an important ally, and they would like to keep that,” Romualdez said.

Asked how the US vaccine donation could affect Duterte’s VFA stance, Roque said, “We still have to receive the vaccines to begin with.”

“First and foremost, we still don’t know if there are really vaccines which will arrive, how many and how much, so let us wait for them to arrive first,” Roque said.

Roque said the President has been pondering on the issue and has a bigger framework of analysis, and to wait because he is the only one who can decide on this matter.

Earlier, Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana earlier said the Philippines defense apparatus wants to keep the VFA as it has been vital in boosting the capabilities of under-resourced Philippine forces through dozens of annual joint training exercises.

Biden’s administration has reaffirmed the alliance between Manila and Washington in the face of Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, faculty members of the University of the Philippines College of Law reminded President Duterte “to act in the best interest of the Philippines and the Filipino people” as they urged him to retract his controversial statements on the West Philippine Sea.

In a statement, the educators said the following statements of Duterte “betray the interests of the country he swore to protect.”

– The 2016 Arbitral Award is a mere scrap of paper that should be “thrown to the wastebasket”

– China is “in possession” of the West Philippine Sea

– Chinese fishermen are free to fish in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

Relations between the United States and its former Southeast Asian colony have been complicated by Duterte’s rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning US foreign policy, and his open embrace of China.

Since March, the Philippines has repeatedly protested the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters. These incursions happened despite a 2016 arbitral ruling that junked Beijing’s claims to almost the entire waterway.

Duterte pursued investments and loans from China. But he said while he could not go to war with the economic superpower, he would not pull back Philippine ships from the South China Sea.