Who are we fooling this time?

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

— American humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain

WHAT COULD be construed as an inadvertent way to ‘sour’ our foreign relations with the United States and newly-elected US president Joseph Robinette Biden, the Duterte administration is demanding in exchange for the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) compensation amounting to US$16 billion even as our president Rodrigo Roa Duterte cited that Pakistan received the same financial aid in counter-terrorism assistance from Washington from 2001 to 2017.

In defense of the unexpected demand for compensation, presidential spokesperson Atty. Harry Roque argued that the Philippines had received only a total of US$3.9 billion from the USA in the same period.

The former Davao City mayor had earlier told the US government that it must pay if it wanted to keep the VFAan agreement signed in 1998 that allows American troops to come to the Philippines for joint military exercises with Filipino troops as well as in the conduct of humanitarian missions such as relief activities during calamities and disasters, and medical efforts aimed at mitigating adverse effects of epidemics such as the African swine fever and avian flu, and pandemics like the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Duterte ordered the abrogation of the agreement last year but suspended the move because of the spread of Covid-19 and “heightened superpower tensions” triggered by invasive actions from the People’s Republic of China in the disputed regions of the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea.

Defense and foreign affairs officials have spoken against the termination of the deal, warning that the country could lose billions of dollars worth of assistance and that it could undermine Philippine defense and security arrangements. Many critics, however, noted that the VFA, which also provides rules for the entry and departure of military personnel and supplies, is just as detrimental since, in one argument, the agreement abdicates Philippine sovereignty when trying US personnel who commit crimes.

Still, Roque was unable to answer directly how the administration would make up for the benefits that the Philippines would lose should the VFA be terminated because Washington would not want to pay up. All he said was that the chief executive was clear about the matter and he wants compensation. And in what appears to be a veiled threat, Roque added that “if the Americans don’t agree, then there is also the previous declaration of the president that he will terminate the VFA.”

Reacting to Duterte’s demand for compensation, vice president Maria Leonor Robredo tagged the president’s remarks demanding that the United States cough up money in exchange for the VFA as “embarrassing” even as she warned that such statements from the chief executive could be misconstrued as a form of “extortion” from Washington.

It’s like we’re crooksif you want this, pay up, Robredo commented.

Even former foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario called the Duterte administration’s position on the VFA as “incomprehensible” and “unfortunate.”

Who are we fooling this time? | Opinion: What JuanMan says | Juan Manila

Del Rosario pointed out that Duterte instead of badgering Washington with compensation for the VFA, the president should seek payment for PhP230 billion worth of damage for China’s massive marine destruction in the West Philippine Sea.

But Roque disputed the allegations that the President’s demand constituted “extortion,” saying that seeking payment would protect the interest of Filipinos while providing the country with much-needed funds for Covid-19 response and for social services.

The president’s mouthpiece noted that Pakistan got US$16 billion from America that’s why he believes (and so does the Duterte administration) the Philippines should get something similar or close to that amount.

Not the amount we’re currently getting, he aggressively defined.

Citing figures on US assistance from Stimson Center’s study on counterterrorism spending, Roque said the US had been giving “very little” to our country, which, he added, received one of the lowest amounts of military assistance from 2001 to 2017. This, despite the fact that Manila has not just been hosting American soldiers but also giving them access to the Philippines’ military establishments and allowing them to preposition their equipment there through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

But how much are we getting for this, he asks?

According to the Stimson study, the Philippines only got US$3.9 billion.

Is this a big amount, Roque queried incredulously while describing the amount as ‘loose change’ when compared to what other countries received.

Moreover, the presidential spokesperson alleged that unlike the Philippines, Pakistan only became a US ally not too long ago and yet it got US$16.4 billion. Meanwhile, Afghanistan also received the biggest amount of assistance at US$97.8 billion.

Last December, Duterte said he would push through with the termination of the VFA unless Washington provides us with Covid-19 vaccines. As an explanation, though, Roque said what the president was asking for was a commitment on the allocation of vaccines for the Filipino people.

He said the Philippines could ask for US payment because it stood to be affected should hostilities break out between China and the United States.

But for Robredo, asserting the country’s rights should not necessarily mean “we are fighting with China.”

Maybe some perceive that Duterte’s position on the VFA and compensation for it is not hinting on a conflict with America but isn’t siding with the Chinese—despite their invasive and expansionist policies in Asia—trying to pick a fight with the very country we profess as our brother and ally?

But Del Rosario had clarified that the VFA was an implementation of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty forged by the United States and the Philippines as security partners after World War II. Thus, it is incomprehensible that when partners help each other against a common enemy, one party is asking his partner to pay and this is the gist of the President’s unfortunate position on the VFA.

So, who are we fooling this time?