The Office of American Affairs is the DFA’s nerve center and the principal channel of the Philippine government in its entire dealings with the US government—be it political, diplomatic, economic and security matters. Its head is, by practice and tradition, of ambassadorial rank and usually drawn from the career service.
It was recently reported that Carlos Sorreta was removed from his post as Assistant Secretary for American Affairs and transferred to the Foreign Service Institute. No specific reason was given by the DFA and Sorreta simply said it was a routine assignment.
Sorreta is now of ambassadorial rank and was once reported to be the head of the Philippine panel negotiating the Increased Rotational Presence agreement between the Philippines and the United States. During the negotiations of the Visiting Forces Agreement in the late 1990s brilliant young foreign service officers (FSOs) like Herrera-Lim, Lacanilao, Sorreta and others served as assistants/advisers to the DFA’s negotiating panel.
With his professional background Sorreta should be considered an expert on Philippine.-US relations. So why was he fired? Why is there an impasse in the PHL-US IRP talks?
Many reasons have been advanced by several commentators most of whom intended to protect Philippine national interests. Malacañang has been reported as to having said that semantics is one of the reasons.
My own wish is that the question of who should have primary custody over any US personnel involved in the violation of local laws should be the cause why the two governments should travel the extra mile for the sake of justice for the accused and the two countries.
Two major cases in the recent past seriously tested and strained PHL-US relations. One was the mauling of a taxi driver in Cebu by two drunk US sailors and the other was the traumatic Nicole case in Zambales. At the center of the controversy was the question of who should have custody over the accused.
Actually the custody issue was the very problem that also caused a long break, almost a collapse in the VFA talks. The American position on the question was clearly defined and strongly pushed, in the so-called “Campbell paper” [after Kurt Campbell, one of the top American negotiators]. The US should have custody over US personnel.
Of course the Philippine panel held its ground. Undersecretary Severino and his DFA team with Secretary Siazon’s support, the DND panel headed by Undersecretary Gacis, NICA’s Aguirre and DOJ’s Paras and others were united on the issue.
The VFA talks were effectively suspended for months. It took instructions from higher-ups and the concerted search of wordsmiths to find the politically and diplomatically acceptable language that eventually moved the negotiations forward.
Under the current atmosphere when the US is eager to execute a pivot and the situation in the West Philippine/South China sea continues to dangerously develop, the Philippines and the US should endeavor to put in the proposed IRP agreement a remedy that will prevent the Zambales and Cebu incidents from again causing anguish and tension in the relations between the two countries.
Ambassador Montesa was envoy to Mexico, the European Union, Belgium and as Assistant Secretary for American Affairs, participated in the VFA negotiations. He was the first Executive Director of the Presidential Commission on the VFA.