US defense chief heads to Manila, eyes VFA talks; PHL gets more US vaccines donation

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY Lloyd Austin heads to Manila

By Jeanne Michael Penaranda

MANILA/WASHINGTON — President Rodrigo Duterte maybe planning to extend after all the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States but said he wants to talk first with US officials in the Office of the President, State Department or Defense Department before making the decision 

This developed as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Southeast Asia starting July 23, a trip that will include stops in the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.”Secretary Austin’s visit will demonstrate the importance the Biden-Harris Administration places on Southeast Asia and on ASEAN as an essential part of the Indo-Pacific’s architecture,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in Washington.

“This trip will underscore the enduring US commitment to the region, and our interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region and promoting ASEAN centrality,” the US Embassy said in a Facebook post.

It was reported that the US under President Joseph Biden Jr. is looking to reinforce its role in a region where China has sizable influence as a trading partner amid its rising military activities in the disputed South China Sea. 

The Pentagon said Austin has been keen to preserve decades-old military ties with the Philippines, a defense treaty partner, after repeated threats to downgrade the alliance by President Duterte who is perceived as largely pro-China.

A diplomat, who is a military officer assigned in an embassy in Manila, said the trip was more than symbolic as the United States would like to reassure old allies and new partners in the region of its commitment to keep the region secure and safe.“One of the reasons why Secretary Austin is traveling to the region is to explain what the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) is all about and hopefully generate support for the new security strategy,” he said.

Under the PDI, the US planned to set up a network of radar facilities to defend and protect its forces in Guam and in the region, spending $27 billion for five years until 2027.The PDI also planned to deploy medium-range missiles in many parts of the Indo-Pacific region to hit China’s first island chain, particularly the artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is expecting Austin, a retired general who last commanded the US Central Command, to emphasize the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in his meeting with both Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

Meanwhile, on July 16 and 17, the United States delivered a total of 3,240,850 one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines to the Philippines as part of its worldwide effort to help end COVID-19.  This is the first time the Philippines has received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a safe, trusted, and easy to store shot widely used in the United States.

The shipment was provided directly to the Philippines by the U.S. government, with delivery via the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility, a global initiative to support equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

U.S. Embassy in the Philippines Chargé d’Affaires John Law and Acting USAID Mission Director Sean Callahan joined Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr., Secretary of Health Francisco Duque III, IATF Chief Implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez, Secretary of the National Economic and Development Authority Karl Chua, and other stakeholders at Ninoy Aquino International Airport to welcome the arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines on July 16 and 17.

“This U.S. donation of vaccines from our domestic supply to the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia, demonstrates our close and abiding relationship, and how important this partnership is to us.  This one-shot, easy to store vaccine will protect millions of lives across the country,” said Chargé d’Affaires Law.

The Philippines has previously received more than 7 million vaccine doses through the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), a global initiative run by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to support equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.  The United States is the largest monetary contributor to Gavi, having already donated over Php100 billion ($2 billion) to the Alliance.

The United States has worked closely with Philippine stakeholders throughout the pandemic to protect public health and support the local response to COVID-19.  To date, total U.S. government COVID-19 assistance to the Philippines amounts to over Php1.38 billion ($27.5 million).