Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 28) — The end of the Visiting Forces Agreement can mark the start of China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, a former Supreme Court justice knowledgeable of the maritime dispute warned on Friday.
Retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio in a media forum explained that the VFA, a two-decade-old treaty with the US, is the only legal basis for the presence of American soldiers in the country.
Without the VFA, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – which allows the US military to preposition weapons and other defense equipment in the Philippines – is useless, Carpio said. He shares this view with the country’s Justice Secretary, Menardo Guevarra.
Carpio explained that the presence of US soldiers and military equipment in the country sends a message to China that “any armed aggression will be repelled.”
“Without such capability, we telegraph to the enemy that further seizure of Philippine islands, rocks and seas, in the South China Sea will be walk in the park,” Carpio said.
“Without such capability, we would practically be inviting the enemy to seize whatever Philippine islands, rocks, reefs, it desires to seize in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
Like EDCA, the Mutual Defense Treaty, a 1951 agreement that states that the Philippines and the US would come to the defense of the other in case of an attack by a foreign country, is “hollow.” He said the “strategic prepositioning of war materials” is necessary to deter any attack from foreign forces.
The ‘only deterrent’
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario likewise said that the country’s military alliance with the US is “the only deterrent” against Chinese incursions in Scarborough Shoal.
China gained control of Scarborough, also known as Panatag Shoal, after a controversial standoff in 2012.
China had since blocked Filipino fishermen from that area west of Zambales which Manila claims as part of the West Philippine Sea. This prompted the Philippines to file a case for international arbitration, which it won. The arbitral tribunal invalidated China’s sweeping claim to the South China Sea, and called out Beijing for violating Filipinos’ traditional fishing rights in Scarborough. China rejects the landmark ruling and insists on owning the vast global waterway.
Carpio warned that China may push through with building on Scarborough Shoal – similar to what it did in Mischief Reef, also known as Panganiban Reef – when the Philippines terminated the Military Bases Agreement in 1992.
“When we terminated the bases agreement, within three years, China seized Mischief Reef. Now with the cancellation of the VFA… China might just proceed again to reclaim Scarborough Shoal,” he said.
Mischief Reef is now China’s biggest outpost in the disputed Spratlys.
‘No need to be part of US or China’
President Rodrigo Duterte recently defended his decision to terminate the VFA, saying the Philippines had “no business being a republic” if it cannot stand on its own feet and rely on its own military to defend itself.
He then gave an option: “We can be a territory of the Americans or we can be a province of China.” Malacañang later clarified the President was taunting those who criticized his move to end the VFA.
But Carpio said there’s merit to opinions that the Philippines needs the US.
“Of course, I cannot see how the Philippines can be self-reliant as against regional superpowers nuclear-armed like China,” Carpio said.
He said Filipinos should never be made to choose between being a Chinese province or a US territory, “because we can have alliances” instead.
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.
Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez said he is in talks with his counterpart, Ambassador Sung Kim, as well as armed forces officials, to see if a military agreement can be crafted to replace the VFA. He said the resulting proposal will be presented to the President for his consideration.