MANILA, Philippines — A security pact that allows thousands of American troops to join large-scale combat exercises in the Philippines is "imperfect" but Manila is unlikely to amend it, the country's top diplomat said Thursday.
The Visiting Forces Agreement, which was signed by the treaty allies in 1998, has come under renewed criticism by left-wing groups and nationalists after it allowed American officials to retain custody of a U.S. Marine accused of killing a transgender Filipino earlier this month.
The U.S. military agreed to transfer Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton from an American warship to the Philippine military's main camp in metropolitan Manila but he remains guarded by fellow Marines in a compound with an outer security ring of Filipino troops.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said amending the agreement could disrupt joint military exercises. The Philippines has also turned to the U.S. for help in modernizing its underfunded military amid a territorial row with China.
"It's an imperfect agreement but given that, as I said, it's not plausible for us to amend at this time," del Rosario told the ABS-CBN TV network, adding that the accord needed to be abrogated by both countries to pave the way for any proposed changes.
The agreement has no clear provision outlining how it can be amended, according to Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose.
"If we abrogate," del Rosario said, "it interrupts the ... joint exercise between our two armed forces. It consequences the modernization, the joint training, the inter-operability."
Critics have cited the custody provision of the accord — which says American military suspects shall remain in U.S. custody until legal proceedings are completed — as proof that the agreement is lopsided and undermines the sovereignty of the Philippines, which was an American colony until 1946.
Both sides are trying to make the agreement work despite its flaws, del Rosario said.
Philippine and U.S. authorities engaged in a high-profile custody battle over another U.S. Marine, Daniel Smith, who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on charges of raping a Filipino woman in 2005. A Philippine appeals court overturned his conviction in 2009, allowing him to leave the country amid anti-U.S. protests.
In the latest case, Philippine police said Pemberton met Jennifer Laude, 26, at a disco bar in Olongapo city, northwest of Manila, on Oct. 11, then went to a motel room where Laude's body was later found. Laude, whose former name was Jeffrey, had apparently been drowned in the toilet bowl.