Philippines says to meet US to iron out differences on troop deal

The Visiting Forces Agreement provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (REUTERS) - The Philippines and the United States will meet this month to iron out differences over a two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Manila's top diplomat said, amid renewed concerns in the region over China's assertive maritime agenda.

The Philippines in November suspended its decision to terminate the VFA for a second time to allow it to work with Washington on a long-term mutual defence pact.

"I am narrowing down the issues and soon we will meet...and iron out whatever differences we have," Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin told ANC news channel on Monday, adding a meeting was likely in the last week of February.

He declined to elaborate on the terms of a potential agreement.

President Rodrigo Duterte notified Washington in February last year that he was cancelling the deal amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a US visa.

The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the country and experts say that without it their other bilateral defence agreements, including the Mutual Defence Treaty, cannot be implemented.

The US Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of the Mutual Defence Treaty and its clear application if Manila came under attack in the South China Sea.

Mr Blinken's comments came as Manila had filed a diplomatic protest over China's passing of a law allowing its coastguard to open fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a "threat of war".

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, which is a major trade route. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

Mr Locsin said he would continue to press for a maritime code of conduct that "will never exclude" the United States, to ensure the regional balance of power.

Separately, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would talk to allies about China's law and concern that a miscalculation could lead to open conflict.

He also told CNN Philippines that the United States had not consulted the Philippines or other claimants before its patrols.

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