Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte has refused to reverse his stance on the termination of the decades-old bilateral visiting forces agreement with Washington, brushing aside a move by several senators including his allies to challenge his decision before the Supreme Court.
Duterte made the statement a month after the Philippines formally relayed to Washington that Manila was withdrawing from the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), despite tensions in the disputed South China Sea and a security threat from Islamic State-linked extremists in the southern Philippines.
“They cannot compel me. I refuse to be compelled. I have terminated it,” Duterte told reporters late Monday, according to transcripts that were made available the following day. “As far as I’m concerned, we are beginning to count the 180 days for them to pack up and go.”
The Philippine announcement came weeks after Duterte threatened to cut military ties because the U.S. State Department apparently revoked an American visa for his former police chief, now-Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who had served as chief enforcer of the government’s drug war that has left thousands of people dead.
In a petition filed at the Supreme Court on Monday, opposition senators questioned Duterte’s action and asked the court to compel him to seek the legislators’ concurrence in terminating the VFA.
The senators, including administration ally Vicente Sotto, said the constitution specifically gives the Senate sole power to review treaties, precisely to create a system of checks and balances in government. Duterte’s unilateral action was in direct violation of this provision, they said.
Sotto was supported by the Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Sens. Richard Gordon and Panfilo Lacson. They also asked the high court to define the chamber’s authority in scrapping international agreements.
On Tuesday, Sotto insisted the move was meant to partly “protect the independence” of the Senate. Duterte has a supermajority in both Houses of Congress.
Sotto said the move was meant to “assert the sense the power of the Senate that we know and we think that we have.”
He emphasized that Congress should be consulted and that the president should wait for that concurrence, if at all.
“The Senate must do its part in protecting the checks and balances in our government,” he said, adding his alliance with the president should never outweigh public welfare.
“I will always choose to fight for the independence of the Senate,” he said.
Drilon said their move should not be taken as a direct affront to Duterte, but rather was meant to clarify the scope of the separation of the legislature and the executive.
“The Senate has already [categorically] stated in about 20 treaties that we had approved for ratification that our advise and consent are needed before these can be terminated. That’s very clear,” Drilon told reporters.
The VFA allows for joint military exercises between the allies after the United States vacated two of its largest overseas military installations – the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, both located northwest of Manila – in the 1990s. Those exercises bore fruit in 2017 when Philippine troops received aerial intelligence from U.S. forces during their successful battle against Islamic State militants in the southern city of Marawi.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City contributed to this report.