Senate ratifies military agreement with Australia that permits visiting troops
The Senate ratified a sensitive military pact with Australia Tuesday that lays out rules for visiting troops, in a move politicians said would improve regional security, and not just enhance Philippine defense at a time of growing tension with China.
Voting 17-1, the Senate adopted Senate Resolution 788 which concurs with President Benigno Aquino III's ratification of the Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA).
"Concurrence with the ratification... will not only pave the way for us to improve our defense mechanisms, it will also solidify our decades-old relationship with Australia," according to an Agence France-Presse report, citing what Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile said in a statement.
The report also cited Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda as saying in another statement, “The Senate... has taken an important step in enhancing our national and regional security by ratifying the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement between Australia and the Philippines."
The two countries had earlier signed a preliminary agreement on defense and military cooperation in 1995.
The latest pact would, among other things, subject visiting soldiers to the jurisdiction of the host country should they commit acts that are illegal in the host country but not in the sending country.
The Philippines signed a similar pact in 1998 with its traditional military ally the United States.
'Not a defense pact'
The lone dissenting voice to the concurrence was Senator Joker Arroyo.
Arroyo said the Aquino administration only wants this ratified because of the dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea.
"Are we trying to say that other than the US, we also have other allies like Australia? ASEAN, our regional friends and geographically close to us, hesitate to lend us their token support. [So] why should we enlist Australia, which is so far away and an out and out ally of the US to be our ally too?" he argued.
Arroyo added that although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China. “Let us not grab at straws," he added.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago had earlier opposed the measure's passage, saying the SOVFA was "vague" and may put the Philippines at a disadvantage. The senator, however, was absent during Tuesday’s vote.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III qualified his vote and downplayed the agreement’s value, saying the treaty with Australia is "simply a training and education agreement”.
He said that the agreement does not seek to establish bases in the country or deprive Philippine courts of their jurisdiction to try cases like murder, rape, sexual harassment, and the like filed against the Australian Visiting Forces.
"This vote is very simple because the objective of the SOVFA is simple: it is simply recognition of a potentially beneficial and mutual partnership that can be continued between the Philippines and Australia in the field of military training, education, and exercise, and in humanitarian activities. No more. No less," he said.
"Let us not mislead the Filipino people into believing that the SOVFA will give us an automatic ally in times of armed conflict. This is not the objective of SOVFA," he added.
“This (SOVFA) will further strengthen our bilateral relationship with Australia in view of mutually contributing in the maintenance of peace and stability in the region as we gear towards a minimum credible defense capability and reliable disaster response capacity,” Burgos also said. — DVM/VS/HS/ELR, GMA News
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said the “SOVFA is mutually beneficial to both countries’ armed forces. The SOVFA will further strengthen bilateral ties as we upgrade our soldiers’ knowledge and skills particularly in the conduct of humanitarian assistance and disaster response."