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Philippines and US to devise long-term agreement, settle troop deal differences

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

The Philippines in November suspended for a second time President Rodrigo Duterte's unilateral decision to terminate the VFA, to allow it to work with Washington on a long-term pact.

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“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.

Duterte notified Washington in February last year that he was cancelling the deal, outraged that a senator and ally who led his notorious war on drugs was denied a US visa.

The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. Experts say without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.

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

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month stressed the importance of the MDT should Manila come under attack in the South China Sea.

Blinken's comments came as the Philippines protested China's new law allowing its coastguard to open fire on foreign vessels in what it sees as its territory, describing it as a “threat of war”.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, which is a major trade route.

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, Defense 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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