March 15, 2009
By Marvin Sy
MANILA, Philippines - President Arroyo got a surprise early morning call yesterday from US President Barack Obama and both pledged their commitment to a “long standing alliance,” particularly the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
“They reaffirmed their commitment to the long-standing US-Philippines alliance, including the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which remains critical to the bilateral relationship and our strategic interests,” a statement posted on the White House website said.
The VFA is under fire following the US refusal to hand over convicted rapist Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith to Philippine authorities while his case is on appeal.
“The two leaders discussed the need to work closely together on the global economic crisis as well as on other areas of common concern, including climate change, education, and interfaith dialogue,” the White House statement read.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde thanked Obama for his call, noting that the Philippines is looking forward to “continuing to work together with him on issues of common interest.”
Quoting Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, Remonde said the call was a positive development in the relations between the two countries.
“Secretary Romulo wants to stress that it was President Obama who sought President Arroyo,” Remonde said.
President Arroyo was one of three world leaders President Obama called up yesterday, the two others being Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Saudi Arabia King Abdullah.
The US president also commended President Arroyo for the Philippines’ efforts in combating terrorism as well as for modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The VFA is being reviewed by treaty experts in the US State Department and by their local counterparts in light of the order of the Supreme Court for the Philippine government to take custody of Smith. The continued refusal of the US to hand over Smith has rekindled calls for the abrogation of the agreement.
In 2006 Smith was sentenced to 40 years for the rape of a Filipina, whom he met at a bar at the former US naval base in Subic Bay in Olongapo City.
After Smith’s conviction, Washington called off large-scale Balikatan military exercises in protest, forcing Philippine authorities to transfer him to a detention facility inside the US embassy.
For the past two years Smith has been held by the embassy under a “temporary custodial arrangement,” awaiting an appeal.
Obama is seen as having a special fondness for Indonesia, considering that he once lived there. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose the world’s biggest Muslim-populated nation as the only Southeast Asian country in her Asian tour last February.
President Arroyo has been criticized by her opponents for appearing to be desperate to seek an audience with the newly elected Obama.
Critics said she desperately needs Obama to improve her image in the Philippines and abroad.
President Arroyo first tried to reach Obama after his victory last November but he was unable to take her call.
The two leaders eventually were able to speak within the month as Obama started returning the calls he missed.
In several visits to the US last year and early this year, President Arroyo tried unsuccessfully to talk personally with Obama even when the two were in the same room.
Mrs. Arroyo made a last-minute decision to go to Washington from Bahrain to attend the National Prayer Breakfast where Obama was one of the speakers.
The two leaders failed to meet as Obama left for another appointment immediately after his speech. VFA review still needed
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the Arroyo administration must still push for a review of the VFA despite Obama’s voicing of support for the pact.
“We should not allow our bilateral ties with the US to be framed primarily by the war against terrorism as previously enunciated and propagated these past eight years by former President George W. Bush and conducted through the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Pangilinan said in a text message.
He said Obama and Mrs. Arroyo “are in error” for letting bilateral ties hinge on the Bush-era VFA.
“This is being myopic and narrow-minded. The VFA has been utilized as a staging ground in the region for the rejected war against terror employed by the Bush administration,” he said.
“It would be a mistake for the Obama administration to embrace the arrangement shaped by the highly questionable foreign policy initiative of his predecessor,” Pangilinan said.
“It is time to rethink and reshape Philippine-US ties and this means expanding the terms of our engagement and by revisiting the onerous provisions of the treaty with the end in view of removing the same,” he added.
Pangilinan said Obama’s support for the VFA was expected, considering the treaty favored US interests more than the Philippines’.
“Malacañang should not point to Obama’s support for the VFA as a means to shore up support from our own people. For them to do so is to suggest that they support US interests more than they do their own,” he said.
Pangilinan earlier filed a resolution seeking a review or outright abrogation of VFA. Several other groups are also pushing for the termination of the VFA for supposedly being lopsided. --With Aurea Calica