Philippine, US Visiting Troop Pact in 'Full Force Again'

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has declared that America will invoke the treaty if Philippine ships or aircraft come under attack in the South China Sea – an indirect warning aimed at Beijing.

Philippine, US Visiting Troop Pact in 'Full Force Again'

The 70-year-old defense alliance between Manila and Washington is back on track after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would fully restore a key bilateral military pact following his meeting with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin in Manila, officials announced Friday.

The U.S. defense secretary visited the Philippine capital as he wrapped up a weeklong tour of three Southeast Asian countries located in the heart of the contested South China Sea, a geopolitical issue that headlined the agenda during his stops in Singapore, Hanoi, and Manila.

On Friday, Austin’s Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, who challenged recent incursions by Chinese ships into Philippine-claimed territory in strategic waterway, announced the decision about the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.

“Last night, after the meeting between Secretary Austin and the president ... the president decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA,” Lorenzana told reporters during a joint press conference with Austin. 

“So the VFA is in full force again. There is no termination letter pending and we are back on track,” he said, adding that Duterte’s letter informing Washington of his plan will be “retracted as if nothing happened.” 

Lorenzana’s announcement reverses Duterte’s February 2020 pronouncement to scrap the 22-year-old pact after Washington had denied a U.S. visa to Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, his former national police chief and main enforcer of his administration’s bloody war on drugs. 

Duterte would later rescind that decision after Washington, under then-President Donald Trump, reinstated dela Rosa’s visa, but the VFA needed to be renewed every six months. At the time of the last renewal in February, Duterte told the U.S. to pay for the right of American troops to stay in the Philippines. 

At their joint news conference, Lorenzana and Austin both emphasized that the military pact was back for good – meaning military drills and exercises in Philippine territory involving U.S. troops would proceed unhampered. 

Duterte’s office, meanwhile, said that the president and Austin had an “open and frank” discussion on Thursday focused on enhancing the two countries’ military cooperation in the South China Sea.

According to Duterte’s office, both men “agreed that the alliance can be further strengthened through enhanced communication and greater cooperation, particularly in the areas of pandemic response, combating transnational crimes, including the war on illegal drugs, maritime domain awareness, the rule of law, and trade and investments.” 

On Friday, Lorenzana and Austin discussed the way ahead for the Philippine-U.S. alliance. 

“This visit is another manifestation of the shared commitment to the alliance between our defense establishments and the inherent risks and challenges of the times,” Lorenzana said. 

Responding to a question on Friday about Duterte’s decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was aware, but did not specifically comment about it.

“China always maintains that state-to-state exchanges and cooperation should not only benefit the countries concerned but also regional and global peace and stability,” he said.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (right) and U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin wave to journalists before meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Metro Manila, July 30, 2021. [European Pressphoto Association/ Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines pool]

Austin said he was pleased to visit the Philippines to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the alliance in person. He also thanked Duterte for restoring 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,” Austin said in a statement released by the Pentagon. “A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal.”

Austin also said he had a “productive discussion” on Friday with Lorenzana on maritime and counterterrorism cooperation along with efforts to modernize the Philippine military.

“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 their highest aspirations and to safeguard the rights of all other citizens,” he said.

During a speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin repeated the U.S. view that China’s claim to almost all the South China Sea “has no basis in international law” and “treads on the sovereignty of states in the region,” according to a transcript from the Pentagon. 

“Unfortunately, Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water,” Austin said.

Later, while in Hanoi, he assured Vietnam that he was not seeking to force that nation to choose between China and the U.S., saying allies and partners should have the “freedom and space to chart their own futures.”

American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin walks past an honor guard during a visit to the Philippine Department of National Defense in Manila, July 30, 2021. [European Pressphoto Association/ Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines pool]

President Duterte, whose six-year term ends in less than a year, has spent much of his time in office building up Manila’s relationship with Beijing while backing off on bilateral ties with Washington.

In late August, the U.S. and the Philippines will mark the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty, under which the two allies are bound to come to each other’s military aid if one of them comes under attack from another power.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that America would invoke that treaty if Philippine ships or aircraft came under attack in the South China Sea – an indirect warning aimed at Beijing, which has vast territorial claims in the maritime region.

Despite his efforts, analysts have said Duterte and the defense establishment have been under pressure from the public and the political opposition over China’s continued expansion in the South China Sea. Earlier this year, government patrols reported spotting 240 Chinese ships in Philippine waters.

Geopolitics analyst Chester Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, noted that the burden of proof that Duterte’s announcement has repaired ties with Washington has yet to be seen.

He said Duterte, in his final State of the Nation speech to Congress on Monday, showed he has not closed the door on diplomatic efforts with Beijing. The president had previously said he was indebted to Chinese leader Xi Jinping for Beijing’s help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The U.S. has to work harder as China enjoys preferential treatment in the Philippines,” Cabalza told BenarNews. 

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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Police in China’s XUAR Question Uyghurs For Attending Eid Prayers Without Permission

Authorities in Aksu round up people under 50 years old who were forbidden to pray on the Muslim holy days.

Police in China’s XUAR Question Uyghurs For Attending Eid Prayers Without Permission

Police in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region took in for questioning more than 170 Uyghurs who attended prayer services without permission from authorities during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holy days, a senior police officer said.

Authorities in Aykol township of Aksu city (in Chinese, Akesu) city allowed only Uyghurs over the age of 50 to participate in worship services during the holiday on July 20-23, the officer from the district’s police station told RFA last week.

Many of the 12 million Muslims in the XUAR celebrated Eid al-Adha, also known as Qurban Heyt (in Chinese, Gurban), with prayers, dancing and the slaughtering of goats or sheep as a religious sacrifice.

Authorities in a number of city and county centers throughout the XUAR had staged controlled displays of religious worship to counter accusations of widespread rights abuses in the region by opening a few long-shuttered mosques to the public during the Eid holy days to present a semblance of normalcy.

The senior police officer in Aykol told RFA that more than 170 Uyghurs accused of violating regulations regarding Eid prayers are currently being held in custody, though he said he could not comment on their whereabouts or whether they were being detained in “re-education” camps or detention centers.

“I believe there are more than 170 people,” he said.

“We told older people they could pray and young people they could not — those under 50,” he said.

Township residents said that authorities had taken “many neighbors” in for interrogations, but could not provide an estimate.

Authorities also conducted street patrols, raids of shops, and home searches as measures to control Uyghurs’ actions during the Muslim holy days, said the police officer.

Chinese authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities in the XUAR in a network of detention camps since 2017. Beijing says the camps are vocational training centers aimed at combating religious extremism in the region, though inmates are held against their will and subjected to political indoctrination and serious human rights abuses.

Neighborhood spies

Following this year’s Eid prayers in Aksu, police checked the identification cards and searched the homes of those who attended prayer services to verify that they were over 50 years old, said an Aykol resident who declined to be named for safety reasons.

Those whose IDs contained birth date discrepancies as well as Uyghurs that the police suspected of lying about their age were hauled in to the police station for questioning, the person said.

Local police did not go to the mosque themselves to investigate those attending prayer services, and instead used neighborhood spies who serve as the heads of units comprising 10 households each to learn whether some people had prayed secretly at home, other residents said.

Authorities placed black hoods on the heads of those who were reported on suspicion of having prayed illegally during Eid and took them away, they said.

Other township police officers contacted by RFA, including those from the Gulbagh Police Station in Kuchar (Kuche) county, Aksu prefecture, declined to answer questions about the situation.

A previous investigation by RFA found that since 2017 only individuals 60 years of age or older had been allowed to pray in Atush (Atushi), in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, and that authorities had detained violators in a camp.

“We say that people who are very old can pray, older men — people who are older than 60. They don’t even allow young people to go into the mosques,” a security officer from Suntagh village in Atush city previously told RFA.

“If people break the law we turn them over to the village brigade,” she said. “The village brigade takes them for re-education. Then we notify the family over the telephone.”

Religious restrictions for Eid al-Adha were somewhat eased in city and county centers this year, though they continued to be strictly upheld in villages and in countryside as they have in previous years, said a source familiar with the situation, but who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely without retaliation.

The regulations were aimed at preventing unrest and preserving stability by ensuring that Uyghurs did not create any incidents during the religious period, though the XUAR has not had any such protests or unrest since the beginning of the mass internment campaign.

In most townships throughout the region, at least one person from each Uyghur family remains in some form of detention, giving their relatives little reason to celebrate religious holidays, the person said.

According to an arrangement by China’s central government, various prefectures and townships in the XUAR introduced their own regulations for Eid al-Adha based on local conditions, the source said.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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