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Last Tuesday, July 24, marks another milestone in Australian and Philippine relations when Senate voting 17-1 ratified Senate Resolution 788 the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) with Australia.
The ratification concurs with President Aquino III’s ratification of SOVFA.
In his statement Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, said, “Concurring 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”.
Senator Loren B. Legarda, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for introducing the ratification of Senate Resolution 788, said: “…not a knee-jerk reaction to flex muscles with ongoing split with China in West Philippine Sea”.
Senator Legarda obviously refers to Senator Joker Arroyo, the lone dissenter who made his comments, “only wants this ratified because of the dispute with China. Are we trying to say that other than the US, we also have other allies like Australia”?
Senator Arroyo continued “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?
Though the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China and Arroyo added, “Let us not grab at straws. We must persevere”.
Senator Teofisto “TG” Guingona qualified his vote and downplayed the agreement’s value, saying the treaty with Australia is “simply a training and education agreement. 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”.
“The privileges and rights given to Australian armed forces in the Philippines will also be extended to Filipino soldiers in Australia”.
“The agreement does not deprive Philippine courts of their jurisdiction to try and hear cases such as murder, rape, sexual harassment, and the like”.
“Unlike the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement ) with the United States, an agreement that continues to assault the freedom and sovereignty of the Republic, the SOVFA cures the VFA’s critical ills in the area of jurisdiction, custody and detention”.
From Malacanang, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda stated, “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”.
Col. Arnulfo Burgos, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson said, “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.”
“The 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 added.
Senator Chiz Escudero also believes that the SOVFA was an improvement of the VFA between the Philippines and the US.
That SOVFA is a better version of the VFA with the US is also the belief of Senator Koko Pimentel.
From the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the following statement was released ,” another milestone in Philippine-Australian relations”.
“While the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperative defense Activities serves as the framework for bilateral defense and defense cooperation, the SOVFA paves the way for enhanced cooperation in capacity-building and training of armed forces, interoperability to undertake humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations, counter terrorism, and border security, and maritime security”.
DFA announced that the Philippines and Australia were set to convene a Strategic Dialogue to be co-chaired by foreign affairs and defense officials in view of SOVFA. Bilateral mechanism will definitely complement the SOVFA.
Lawyer Rodel Cruz, who chaired the Philippine negotiating panel for the SOVFA when he was defense undersecretary welcomed the ratification and said, “The SOVFA sets a high standard in the treatment of visiting forces in our country based on mutual respect”.
Other members of the Philippine negotiating panel for SOVFA were Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio and Makabungkat Lanto at the time justice undersecretary.
The ratification signifies a landmark vote which marks the beginning of real reforms in shaping our defense policy and enhancing bilateral cooperation.