July 30, 2021
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Holds a Joint Press Conference With Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Manila, Philippines
Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary of National Defense, Republic of Philippines and Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense, United States of America.
PHILIPPINES DEFENSE SECRETARY DELFIN LORENZANA: Good morning.
The Philippines and the U.S. have shared a long history spanning over 70 years as friends, partners and allies. Our cooperation has expanded in the areas of political, economic and social/cultural relations, and our ties, including that between our defense establishments, have continued to grow stronger.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of our alliance and the significant (inaudible) establishment of our diplomatic relations, the Department of National Defense welcomes the visit of Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III of the United States Department of Defense and his delegation to Manila as a timely opportunity to advance mutual interests between our two countries.
This visit is a (inaudible) manifestation of our shared commitment to the alliance between our defense establishments and the inherent risks and challenges of the times.
Earlier this year we were able to conduct modified (inaudible) defense exercises, albeit in restricted settings because of the pandemic. We have also accommodated regular engagements and high-level visits of U.S. military officials, in accordance with our established guidelines and (inaudible). (inaudible) for joint activities has been sustained and the (inaudible) adapted -- adapted well to the current situation. This denotes that no challenge is insurmountable between long-standing allies and friends that are committed to attaining shared goals of regional peace and stability.
The bilateral ministerial meeting that will be held this morning, serves as a platform to discuss the way ahead for the Philippines-U.S. alliance based on the common priorities of our respective administrations. It underscores the significance of the bilateral defense relations between the Philippines and the United States in light of new and emerging challenges that confront our nation.
Before I end this opening statement, last night, after a meeting between Secretary Austin and the President, (inaudible), the President decided to recall, or retract, the termination letter for the VFA. So the visiting force (inaudible) force again (inaudible) and we are back on track, Mr. Secretary, to apply for diplomatic (inaudible).
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, thank you, Secretary Lorenzana, for your warm welcome, and thank you to the Filipino people for your hospitality.
I'd like to start by offering my deep condolences for the tragic military plane crashes in late June and earlier this month. Our deepest sympathies go out to those who were injured and to the families of those who were lost. We continue to stand with the Philippines during this difficult time, and we will continue to support your response.
Now, it's a privilege to be here during my first visit to Southeast Asia as Secretary of defense, and I'm glad to have the opportunity in person to reaffirm our shared commitment to the U.S.-Philippines alliance.
The Philippines is a vital treaty ally, our oldest in Asia, and an equal and sovereign partner. This year we mark the 75th anniversary of our diplomatic relations and the 70th anniversary of our mutual defense treaty. So it's an especially good time to work together to advance our already robust defense cooperation. And on behalf of the U.S., let me thank President Duterte for his decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Our countries face a range of challenges, from the climate crisis to the pandemic, and as we do, a strong, resilient U.S.-Philippines alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together.
Today, Secretary Lorenzana and I had a productive discussion on additional ways to further deepen our long-standing cooperation on several security issues important to both our countries. At the top of my agenda was finding ways to enhance and reinvigorate our alliance and our mutual defense treaty. These include maritime cooperation, support to further modernize the armed forces of the Philippines, and investments that will help the Philippines navigate the region's complex security environment.
We also discussed our counterterrorist cooperation, an especially strong area of common support. The United States has supported the counter-insurgency effort in Mindanao since 2000, and we now provide support to the only named operation in the Indo-Pacific, Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines.
I also reafform -- reaffirmed America's commitment to supporting a sovereign and secure Philippines and to building an even more capable alliance together. We also talked about how we can work toward a free and open Indo-Pacific rooted in a rules-based international order, a region in which countries work together to realize your highest aspirations and to safeguard the rights of all of your citizens. And I underscored my belief that as democracies with shared values, it is important that we protect the rights of our citizens.
Now, I'm especially grateful for our long-standing U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, which enables us to respond swiftly and seamlessly to disasters or crisis. Thanks to the VFA, the Department of Defense can conduct more than 300 bilateral engagements a year with the armed forces of the Philippines, from expert exchanges to ship visits to component exercises and major training exercises such as Balikatan, which was held this April. And as you know, Balikatan means "shoulder-to-shoulder" in Tagalog, and that's exactly how we hope our alliance will face the future, because at the heart of this alliance is a relationship built on common interests and values, and ties that bind -- and the ties that bind us have been reinforced by a shared history of service and sacrifice.
You know, coming here is personally very powerful for me. My father served proudly in the Philippines during World War II as a corporal in the United States Army Air Force. He was one of many -- of many American and Filipino service members who fought side-by-side to defeat aggression and secure freedom in the Pacific. And later today, I will visit the Manila American Cemetery, where many of the Filipino and American veterans who fought during World War II are buried shoulder-to-shoulder, just as they served.
And we will continue to stand with the Filipino people, just as we stood together eight decades ago, side-by-side, arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder, balikatan.
Secretary Lorenzana, thank you again.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Secretary Lorenzana and Secretary Austin. With -- with your indulgence, we will now proceed to the question-and-answer. Our first question will come from (inaudible) of GMA Seven.
Q: Good morning, Secretary Austin. Hello, sir.
A recent encounter between the Philippine coast guard and a Chinese military boat (inaudible) the Philippines went into the (inaudible) in the West Philippine Sea. How does this new-found assertiveness of the Philippines figure in what the U.S. and its allies are trying to accomplish in the region, particularly in the West Philippine Sea? And then did this issue figure with the discussion with President Duterte last night?
SEC. AUSTIN: I'm -- I'm sorry. I had a little -- a tough time hearing your question.
Q: Sorry sir. There was an encounter between a Chinese military boat and a Philippine boat in the West Philippine Sea. So this new-found assertiveness, how does this figure into what the U.S. is trying to accomplish in the West Philippine Sea? And then, did this issue in the discussion with President Duterte last night?
SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. What -- I -- I believe the question is regarding our commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty. I think that's the answer to the question.
You know, one of the reasons that I'm here today is to reaffirm that the U.S. security commitment to the Philippines is iron-clad, and that commitment, as Secretary Blinken stated a while back, extends to the South China Sea. And so, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty this year, the commitment to our security partnership with the Philippines is stronger than ever.
Secretary Lorenzana reminded me that the treaty is actually older than me, which is pretty old, I think, but -- but nonetheless, is one that we are committed to. And again, I would reemphasize that it does extend to the South China Sea.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your question, (inaudible).
The next question will come from Idrees Ali of Reuters.
Q: (inaudible). For both secretaries, obviously, restoring the VFA (inaudible) is quite important (inaudible). What do you believe is the reason the President agreed to restore it? Because it's something -- it's something that's been talked about months and months and months. Why now?
And Secretary Austin, how important is it that it's been restored? And -- and -- and in practical matters, you know, what impact would (inaudible) going forward?
SEC. LORENZANA: I don't really know the reason behind the President's (inaudible) and decision making. But one thing is clear: The Department of Foreign Affairs and the -- the ambassador to the -- the United States have been actively working for this to happen, and maybe because of the (inaudible) beginnings that (inaudible).
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, as you know, the -- the President has -- had extended, you know, our ability to -- to continue to train and operate together. And so, we've -- we've had the ability to do what we think is necessary to continue to build capability and capacity with -- and interoperability with the Philippine forces.
This provides us some degree of certainty going forward, so we -- we can plan further in advance. And -- you know, and -- with that long-range plan, we can -- we can actually do more comprehensive exercises.
Having said that, you know, we're doing 300 exercises and exchanges a year. You know, that -- that includes a range of activities. And -- and, again, this provides us a certainty that I think is -- is important to ensure that we -- we continue to produce quality training (inaudible).
MODERATOR: Thank you for your question, Idrees.
The next question will be given by (inaudible) Flores of (inaudible).
Q: Good morning, Secretary Austin. When -- and Secretary Lorenzana.
Secretary Lorenzana, when you meant the VFA was fully restored, is it restored in the original text, or are there revisions, given the Philippines previously had raised concerns, particularly on custody issues when there is a -- an American soldier of -- committing crimes in the Philippines?
And, Secretary Austin, you mentioned it provides flexibility, and one particular important aspect of the VFA is it has the defense cooperation agreement. And there were activities that were stalled because of this uncertainty, are there specific activities now under (inaudible) that will proceed, considering that the -- the President has decided to fully restore the VFA?
SEC. LORENZANA: There is nothing to restore in the VFA the original document is there. What happened was there was this termination letter that was -- that (inaudible) the United States, informing the United States that the -- the agreement would be terminated in six months, but the President extended it several times. So that letter has been retracted, so -- as if nothing happened, and the -- the agreement continued.
Now, with regards to custody of people, I think that's one of the other agreements that has been being worked on both sides, and it did not affect the original document, but will still be used as an example (inaudible).
SEC. AUSTIN: And part of the -- what was stalled, potentially, because of a -- a lack of certainty, actually not -- we -- because the President had extended our ability to -- to train and -- and operate together, we were able to continue to do a number of things.
Again, this (inaudible) provides certainty for us going forward, where we can do long-range planning and -- and do different types of exercises and -- and incorporate more capability. So again, I think it's a -- it's a very welcome decision, and we look forward to continuing to -- to partner with -- with our great partners here in the Philippines.
MODERATOR: Thank you for your question, (inaudible).
The last question will be given by Alana Anyse of CBS.
Q: Thank you.
Secretary Austin, the President has asked you to determine how and when mandatory vaccines for the military will be implemented. Do you see that timeline being a matter of weeks or days? And what kind of options do you see (inaudible)?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you know, I -- I can't predict how long it's going to take. As you would expect me to do, I'll go back and consult with my medical professionals and -- and -- and the -- the Chairman and the Secretaries of the services and the chiefs of the services, and we'll -- we'll outline the -- the steps for the way ahead.
But, you know, we'll -- we'll move this expeditionally -- expeditiously, if possible. You know, I -- quite frankly, I'm inclined to -- to move towards making sure that everybody is -- is properly protected.
This -- this is an issue of risk and -- and readiness for -- for the services. And, you know, we're going to make sure that -- you know, the -- the health of the force is very, very important to me. We're going to make sure we take care of our troops. We're going to do it in the right way.
And -- and so we'll look at this with our medical professionals and the service secretaries, the chiefs, and they will outline that timeline. But we won't let grass grow under our feet. The President directed us to do something, and -- and we'll get after it.
Q: Thank you.
Q: And Mr. Secretary, you said that you wanted the Mutual Defense Treaty reviewed. Could you explain why, and what you want changed, and (inaudible)?
SEC. LORENZANA: (inaudible) specific provisions here. I just want to revisit it and make it more relevant to current situation.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your question, Alana.
That concludes our joint press conference this morning. Thank you, Secretary Lorenzana and Secretary Austin.
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