US to continue counter-terror cooperation with RP – Gates
By Jaime Laude and Jose Katigbak (The Philippine Star) Updated September 12, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates said his country’s counterterrorism cooperation with the Philippines will continue.
Gates voiced the US position in a meeting with Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. in Washington.
The security arrangement involves heightened US support for the local military against local and foreign terrorists as well as against rogue elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
It was not immediately known what additional contributions or assistance the US would provide the local troops.
Gates’ message highlighted Teodoro’s five-day visit to the US aimed at bringing “to a high gear” the defense and security cooperation between the two countries, the Department of National Defense said.
There are some 600 US troops currently deployed in several hot spots in Mindanao, particularly Basilan, Sulu, Zamboanga Peninsula, the two Lanao provinces and Central Mindanao under the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Their task is limited to providing technical and intelligence assistance to local troops, based on the agreement.
In his meeting with Gates, Teodoro emphasized that the Armed Forces of the Philippines has significantly weakened the terror group Abu Sayyaf although it still poses “clear and present danger” to the country together with the Jemaah Islamiyah and rogue MILF forces.
Aside from addressing terror threats, Teodoro and Gates also agreed to explore further cooperation in dealing with non-traditional security issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), climate change, drug trafficking, and maritime security.
Teodoro, in his meeting with Gates, also cited the need for an enhanced Coast Watch South (CWS) by the navy, in partnership with the US and other countries, in order to deny use of the Sulu and Celebes seas by non-traditional maritime threats.
He also underscored the significance of greater US assistance in the government’s infrastructure projects such as construction of school facilities, water system, and farm-to-market roads in strife-torn areas in Mindanao.
Gates, for his part, lauded Teodoro for his efforts to institutionalize reforms in the Defense department and in the AFP through the Philippine Defense Reform Program (PDR).
A DND statement also said Gates praised Teodoro for his department’s successful hosting of the first ASEAN Regional Forum-Voluntary Disaster Response (ARF-VDR) last May in Clark Special Economic Zone in Pampanga.
Meanwhile, Teodoro, in a speech before the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, dismissed as “shortsighted” calls for the abrogation of the VFA.
He said that while there were some problems between the Philippines and the US over some aspects of the pact, abrogation is not the solution.
He described the VFA as Manila’s “hottest political issue” with Washington but said this was an international pact that must be respected by the two signatories.
Teodoro accused the left of ramping up opposition to the treaty over the Balikatan military exercises but of keeping quiet when US forces swing into action on relief operations to help victims of natural disasters.
The Heritage Foundation described Teodoro as a “quickly up-and-coming political leader.”
Teodoro said he was humbled by expressions of support from local executives for his presidential bid and said if nominated by the ruling party and elected to succeed President Arroyo, he would work even more closely with them for the good of the country.
He was commenting on a statement by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita that “there has been an unexpected groundswell from local executives” unanimously supporting Teodoro as the presidential candidate of Lakas-Kampi.
US analysts see the timing of his visit as a subtle show of support by Washington for his candidacy.
Teodoro said he will accept whoever is chosen by the Lakas-Kampi-CMD convention on Sept. 15 as the ruling party candidate.
Asked if he would accept an offer to run for vice president in case he is not anointed as the presidential candidate, he said he would discuss the matter with his family and supporters. “That (running for vice president) is not automatic,” he said.
Officials Teodoro met included Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who gave him a commitment to speed up the processing of claims of Filipino WWII veterans under a $198-million lump sum package provided for in the US Stimulus Package.
Sinseki said as of Sept. 1, a total of 31,876 claims from Filipino veterans have been received and 8,900 applications have been processed. More than $77 million has been awarded to eligible Filipino veterans broken down as follows: 3,138 Filipino veterans with US citizenship received $15,000 each, while 3,414 non-US citizen Filipino veterans received $9,000 each.
Teodoro conveyed the Philippine government’s appreciation for continuing US support for the veterans’ war claims and thanked Shinseki for the DVA’s grant-in-aid to the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) amounting to $5.5 since 2003, inclusive of MRI equipment amounting to $1 million, the delivery of which will be completed next year.
At Capitol Hill, Teodoro thanked Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Bob Filner for their crucial role in the passage of the Filipino veterans provision contained in the Stimulus Package.
On Senator Inouye’s concern about Mindanao and the peace process, Teodoro said that the Abu Sayyaf is less of a problem now and that direct conflict with the MILF has been suspended.
Inouye expressed his intention to visit the Philippines in December this year.
Filner also said he would head a San Diego trade mission to the Philippines in November and take the opportunity to meet with Filipino veterans’ groups. Aside from being chairman of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs, Filner is also chair of the Philippines-US Friendship Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Teodoro also met with Sen. Jim Webb (Democrat-Virginia) and expressed his appreciation for US assistance in building schools and infrastructure in conflict areas in Mindanao.
“There is not much outside support for the Abu Sayyaf, especially from al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah,” he told Webb who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee for East Asia and the Pacific and member of the Committee on Armed Services.
Webb also expressed a desire to visit the Philippines, saying “we do not show up enough in Southeast Asia.”