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COVID-19, South China Sea among reasons for suspension of VFA termination —envoy

The Philippines’ decision to temporarily suspend the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States had been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and developments in the disputed South China Sea, Manila’s Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said Wednesday. 

Romualdez said the possibility of a suspension cropped up during his discussions with his US counterpart Sung Kim about US assistance to the Philippines’ COVID-19 response. 

“Obviously, the situation as far as the pandemic is concerned is a major concern as far as the Visiting Forces Agreement. As a matter of fact, many of the Balikatan exercises had to be moved or cannot obviously be implemented because of the pandemic,” he told ANC. 

“The political reason, obviously, is there’s quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea, very clearly we see that.”

China claims a huge swathe of the South China Sea as part of its territory, but the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated this claim in July 2016 following a case filed by the Philippines in 2013.

Beijing does not recognize the ruling which was temporarily set aside by President Rodrigo Duterte in pursuit of warmer trade and economic relations with the Asian powerhouse.

On Tuesday night, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Philippines has informed the US that it was suspending for six months the termination of the VFA, which governs the presence of US soldiers conducting military exercises in the country.

Locsin said the move was made upon the instruction of the President and "in light of political and other developments in the region."

The US Embassy in Manila welcomed the Philippines' decision as it looked forward  to "continued close security and defense cooperation" between the two countries. 

“I think our governments have seen that it would be prudent for us to just simply suspend first any implementation of the termination,” Romualdez said. 

Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque said he had no information yet with regard to the chief executive’s reasons for the suspension. 

The President ordered the abrogation of the VFA in February after the US revoked the visa of his close aide and former police chief now senator, Ronald Dela Rosa.

US officials did not cite a specific reason why Dela Rosa's visa was canceled, but many speculated it was due to his involvement in Duterte's controversial war on drugs. —KG, GMA News