Philippines military keen to keep US troop deal: Lorenzana

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The Philippines defense apparatus wants to keep a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, its defense minister said on Thursday, as officials met to settle differences over a pact central to Washington’s Asia strategy.

Thursday’s meeting in Manila between US and Philippine officials comes after President Rodrigo Duterte, who openly disapproves of the US alliance, unilaterally cancelled the two-decade-old VFA last year, in an angry response to an ally being denied a visa.

The withdrawal period has been twice extended, however, to create what Philippine officials say is a window for better terms to be agreed upon.

“We at the defense department and the armed forces, the general feeling is for the VFA to continue,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told news channel ANC.

The meeting is the first under US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has reaffirmed the alliance in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Lorenzana said the VFA, which sets out rules for US soldiers operating in the Philippines, has been vital in boosting the capabilities of under-resourced Philippine forces through dozens of annual joint training exercises.

Its importance was stressed by US counterpart Lloyd Austin during a call with Lorenzana on Wednesday.

Ties between the United States and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte’s rise to power in 2016 and his frequent statements condemning US foreign policy, and open embrace of China.

But while the Philippines-US relationship “has always been strong”, Lorenzana said the Southeast Asian nation “should not be made to choose” between Washington and Beijing.

Lorenzana has also expressed concern about a new Chinese law empowering coastguard to fire on what it sees as threats, and repeated US navy patrols that China sees as provocations.

“I told Secretary Austin we don’t want any miscalculations or accidents in the South China Sea because we are right smack there in the center of conflict,” Lorenzana said.

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