Philippines says wants more than ‘loose change’ for U.S. troops deal

Manila, Feb 15 (FN Bureau) The United States is providing the Philippines with military aid that amounts to “loose change” compared to other Asian countries, a top official said on Monday, justifying demands by President Rodrigo Duterte for Washington to pay more. Duterte last week said the United States should fork out more if it wants to maintain a two-decade old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which he unilaterally cancelled last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a U.S. visa.

“If we have very strong ties with a very strong ally then I think it also comes with a higher amount of financial assistance to be given,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told a regular briefing. Roque cited a study by the Washington-based Stimson Center, which showed the Philippines received $3.9 billion in U.S. counter-terrorism support from fiscal year 2002-2017 compared to the $16.4 billion for Pakistan over the same period. “We got $3.9 billion. Is that a huge amount? That’s loose change compared to what other countries were getting,” he said. The militaries of the two countries enjoy close ties, forged during decades of joint exercises that have boosted the capability of Philippine forces while giving the United States an important strategic foothold in a region where China’s power and influence is growing. Defence officials from both countries are trying to salvage the VFA, which underpins the Mutual Defense Treaty and an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Duterte has threatened to scrap all of them. The U.S. embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In December, it said the Philippines received the most U.S. military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region, having received 33 billion pesos ($688.65 million) worth of hardware. Roque said Duterte was upholding the national interest and not committing extortion, as some critics have said. His demand was for compensation, because the rotating U.S. troop presence put the Philippines at risk. “Are we correct in asking for payment so they can maintain their presence and equipment (here)? Why not?” Roque said.