VFA "important expression" of RP-US alliance, says Clinton

November 12, 2009 9:32 pm 

By Gloria Jane Baylon

MANILA, Nov. 13 —- The United States is committed to its strong alliance with the Philippines and her current visit in Manila “is a reaffirmation of that commitment,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at a press conference at the Malacanang complex Thursday afternoon.

Clinton met with reporters following what the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) described as a ”freewheeling affirming exchange” with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto G. Romulo.

And though the exchange did not venture specifically into the issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) per se, it was mentioned tangentially as part of the overall security concerns of the two treaty allies, according to DFA spokesperson Eduardo Malaya.

The State Secretary told reporters "the VFA is an important expression of our alliance."

Both the DFA and the U.S. embassy have much earlier described the VFA as “satisfactory in its present form and should be left at that.”

In a text message to the Philippines News Agency, Malaya said that “no hard issues…no specific security or agreement (were) discussed” in the Romulo-Clinton meeting.

Malaya said that “however, both sides reaffirmed close RP-US security partnership and acknowledged its strategic importance to regional peace and security.”

Following the press conference, Clinton visited the Malanday National High School in Marikina City, one of the hardest hit schools in the worst-hit area of Metro Manila.

There, she annoinced an additional assistance of US$ 5.2 million for the relief and rehabilitation of typhoon victims.

Clinton’s two-day whirlwind visit is in between talks in Singapore in connection with the Leaders Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. The Philippines is the current country coordinator of the US-ASEAN Dialogue, which will be launch in Singapore on November 15.

The Manila side trip visit is part of her Asian tour, which includes visits not only to Singapore, but also to Japan, China and Indonesia. The Philippines, along with Japan, Thailand, and South Korea, are the traditional treaty allies of the U.S.

Still in her arrival suit, Clinton plunged into the exchange as soon as she landed Thursday morning in Manila from Singapore. The exchange covered security issues that included the peace process in Mindanao, and U.S. troop presence in the Philippines.

Later, with reporters, Clinton said that the VFA “is an important expression of that partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest; and our service members as we have seen in these last natural disasters are ready to provide assistance where it is asked for and to work side by side with the military of the Philippines.”

She remarked that she’s “proud with what our service members have done and to respond to the devastating storms and the floods.”

Much of the exchange at Goldenberg, however, was “a discussion on the situation in the Philippines in the wake of two typhoons” which devastated many parts of the Philippines between late September and early October this year, the DFA said.

Official count shows that at least 700 persons died in the aftermath of the disasters, and billions of pesos in destruction of agricultural crops and infrastructure..

Clinton was concerned about national reconstruction even after the May 2010 elections beyond the term of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a personal friend and classmate of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

According to Romulo, Clinton also “confirmed the continued assistance of the U.S. Government not just in relief but also in rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.”

The two Secretaries also “noted the progress in the overall relations and affirmed the multi-faceted RP-US partnership which is founded on shared values, especially a commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights,” according to the DFA.

Both sides also acknowledged the strategic importance of RP-U.S. defense and security cooperation to regional peace and security, DFA added.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Willy Gaa, DFA Undersecretaries Rafael Seguis and Enrique Manalo and Ambassador-designate to Brazil Ivan Garcia also joined in the one-hour exchange at the Goldenberg Mansion of the palace complex.

U.S. Ambassador to Manila Kristie Kenney was among U.S. officials in the Clinton delegation.

Also at the press conference, Clinton also expressed that the international community, including the United States, stands ready to assist toward a comprehensive peace. She added “this is ultimately up to the people of the Philippines and to your government leadership.”

“We are encouraged by the ceasefire (in Mindanao) and the report that I received today about the negotiating effort (between GRP and MILF) is very promising. So we will wish the very best to those who are attempting to bring it in to the conflict and to support you in any way that is appropriate."

Clinton, however, declined to be specific about the future of American forces currently stationed in the Philippines.

Responding to a foreign reporter’s question on whether or not the same troops could be removed from the country for possible deployment to such places as Afghanistan, Clinton said she does “not discuss military decisions that are more appropriately worked out between our governments and militaries.”

She followed up with remarks that “the US stands ready to assist our friends in the Philippines who are seeking to counter terrorism and radical extremism. We will be willing to support them in any way that is appropriate that they request but the relationship between our countries and militaries is very strong and cooperative. We look forward to continuing them.”

A foreign correspondent at the conference observed that this open-ended remark presents a myriad scenario, including the possibility of the re-operation of U.S. military bases in the Philippines in the long term.

The correspondent noted that the U.S. is actually "shopping for new base locations" in the region, but did not elaborate.

Reacting to the same question, Romulo said at the press conference that “the VFA, the US forces are here to assist, advice and train. It’s limited to that. As far as combat role, that is purely Filipino.”

Romulo added that the socio-civic and humanitarian aspects of the troops’ presence were seen when typhoons “Ondoy” (international, “Ketsana”) and “Pepeng” (“Parma”) hit the country. Some 2,600 military personnel, equipment, helicopters, boats, forklifts and bulldozers were immediately dispatched to assist Philippine victims, including to Romulo’s own beleaguered city of Pasig.

“So between the two: the socio economic and humanitarian, as well as supporting , training and advising, i think it worked well for us.”

In a snatch interview with Seguis, chair of the government panel of the Mindanao peace talks, he said that Clinton inquired about the timetable of the process and expressed hope that a comprehensive agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Fronyt (MILF) would be contracted soon.

Arrangements for the resumption of the stalled talks are still underway, and Seguis said he is hopeful of more positive developments especially now that foreign priest Michael Sinnott had been released unharmed by hostage-takers in the Muslim-dominated area of Mindanao.

Sinnot's release was achieved with the help of MILF, according to Seguis.

At the press conference, Clinton said that her government is “ready to assist in Mindanao…but that it’s up to the Philippines to identify what the U.S. role would be.” This point of view was earlier expressed by ambassador Kenney herself.

The U.S. has been pumping USAID grants to impoverished Mindanao’s various sectors, particularly in education and livelihood programs.

During discussions on how to further enhance bilateral relations, Romulo expressed confidence that the Philippines would be able to reach an agreement soon on a Compact partnership with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

At the exchange, “Clinton was hopeful that the US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) will reselect the Philippines as "Compact Eligible" by next month (December)," DFA also said.

Romulo is hopeful because the U.S. has already recognized Philippine efforts to upgrade its performance in most of the indicators. The Philippines moved to 33rd rank from last year’s 39th rank.

A "meaningful exchange" also covered ASEAN-U.S. relations, climate change, and nuclear-non-proliferation. The Philippines lead the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May 2010.

Alsp on Thursday night, she was awarded with the "Order of Sikatuna" by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who hosted a dinner for her at the Palace.

Early Friday morning, she attends a question-and-answer forum of about 800 students from Metro Manila, to be held at the campus of the University of Santo Tomas (UST).

UST is the Philippines'oldest university, 90 years older than Yale University, Clinton's law alma mater, and ranked as an ivy-league educational institution in the country. (PNA)

V3/GJB

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