PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III has ordered a review of the Visiting Forces Agreement so the Philippines will “obtain the maximum benefits” from its military pact with the United States, an official said Monday.
Mr. Aquino would also seek the opinions of the members of Congress on the possible amendments to the 11-year-old treaty, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. said.
“Refinements can be introduced” to improve the provisions of the pact, which lawmakers have criticized as being lopsided in Washington’s favor, Ochoa said.
“The VFA was envisioned to be a mutually beneficial agreement that would serve the interests of both our country and the United States,” said Ochoa, who was recently designated chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement.
“The President, however, believes that a review is necessary because we must evaluate whether we are getting the most out of the VFA.”
Ochoa said the administration realized that incidents involving American servicemen violating Philippine laws highlighted the need to re-evaluate the treaty’s provisions.
He was apparently referring to the rape trial in which US Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was convicted of raping Suzette Nicolas in Subic. While Nicolas eventually recanted and Smith was acquitted, critics said the case showed the flaws in the treaty, with the US Embassy in Manila gaining custody of Smith during the trial.
The treaty says “the custody of the US personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with the US military authorities from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.
“In extraordinary cases, the Philippine government shall present its position to the United States government regarding custody, which the United States government shall take into full account.”
But the term “extraordinary” was not defined to include heinous crimes such as rape.
Also on Monday, the President said he would push for a code of conduct in the South China Sea that would allow the exploration and exploitation of the resources in the disputed area by claimant-countries including the Philippines.
Mr. Aquino told reporters at the Central Azucarera de Tarlac he wanted to see “improvements” in the code of conduct that the claimants planned to take up soon.
“It will be better if we do not have hostilities in that area,” he said.
“The next phase is how to explore the possibility that all claimant-countries can really start reaping the fruits of ... the area so it can be mutually beneficial.”
The Philippines aside, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim part or all of the Spratly group of islands.
Mr. Aquino, who will leave for Hanoi today, |Tuesday, to attend the 17th Leaders’ Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said he would also issue a strong statement on Myanmar’s elections next month.
A copy of the President’s statement on Myanmar during the Leaders Summit showed that Mr. Aquino will describe next month’s polls in the junta-led Myanmar as a “farce” as it excludes the party of freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi.
Before attending the Asean meeting, Mr. Aquino will meet Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet during a state visit.
The Philippines is set to sign four agreements with Vietnam on academic cooperation, defense partnership, oil spill preparedness and response, and search and rescue at sea.
Joyce Pangco Panares