By Daniel Llanto

The Philippine ambassador to the United States revealed there are ongoing efforts to possibly replace the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which is being abrogated at the behest of the Philippines.

Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez told a media forum that he is in talks with his counterpart, Ambassador Sung Kim, as well as members of the military, to see if the VFA “can be polished” or improved. The resulting proposal will then be presented to President Duterte, he said.

“We are now in the process of trying to find ways and means to be able to see how we can either come up with something similar, perhaps, again, still following the President’s thinking about the sovereignty issue,” Romualdez said.

He added that they are now studying the possibility of using the Philippines’ forces agreements with Japan and Australia as templates for a new deal with the US.

“These are the two existing agreements we have with other countries and at the moment I am not at liberty to say what or where we are but that this is being studied and the recommendation will be made to the President,” Romualdez said.

The VFA, a 1998 agreement between Manila and Washington, legally allows the entry of a large number of American troops, exempting them from passport and visa regulations so they can participate in joint military drills in the Philippines.

Upon Duterte’s order on February 11, Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin, Jr. sent the US a notice to terminate the VFA, marking the start of the 180-day period after which it will be effectively scrapped.

Malacañang said the President wants the Philippines to rely on its own but that he remains open to entering VFAs with other countries based on equality, fairness, and mutual benefit.  Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo also said there’s nothing the US government could do to “salvage” the VFA.

But Romualdez is now saying he’s been told that “the door is not totally shut.” He said the proposal he is working on with US counterparts will be an option for the President to consider.

“But again the bottom line always falls on sovereignty and that is the reason why it is a very ticklish and very sensitive issue for both our countries in discussing what we want to do in moving forward,” Romualdez said.

Among the reasons cited by the Duterte administration for abrogating the VFA are the US government’s cancellation of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa’s tourist visa, supposedly for his involvement in alleged extra-judicial killings when he was Philippine National Police chief and the American lawmakers’ repeated demands for the release of Sen. Leila de Lima, a staunch Duterte critic detained on drug charges.

Romualdez revealed that US Sen. Edward Markey, one of the officials calling for De Lima’s release, even warned him last year that there will be serious consequences “if anything happens to Sen. De Lima.” He then recalled telling the American lawmaker that there are also risks in continuing to call for De Lima’s release, noting that her cases are being tried by Philippine courts.

Romualdez added that contrary to US President Donald Trump’s earlier statement shrugging off the VFA termination, Pentagon officials are actually “extremely concerned” about what would happen next. He also cast doubts that Duterte will also move to scrap the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), saying Panelo’s earlier statement hinting at such development was “vague” since it was based on the President’s “body language.”

Retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, however, believes the President is also targeting to junk the MDT, which states that each country would come to the defense of the other in case of an attack by a foreign country and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows the US military to maintain barracks and weapons storage structures inside five Philippine military camps. He shared other legal experts’ opinion that both deals are useless without the VFA.