By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Tensions at the West Philippine Sea have been hitting the headlines since last year. President Benigno Aquino III has been blowing hot and cold over the issue: at times saber-rattling, begging the US to deploy more troops and ‘defend the Philippines against China,’ then calling for diplomatic measures to resolve the territorial dispute. The dominant media has also done its share in fueling tensions by reporting and interpreting each and every move of China as preparations for war.
At the same time, the Obama administration announced its plan to “pivot” or deploy majority of its troops and armaments toward the Asia-Pacific region, a rich trading and investment haven, to help mitigate the impact of the world economic crisis on the US.
Amid all these, the US Armed Forces has been slowly, but surely, further enhancing its foothold in the Philippines, through the increased and more frequent “rotation” of US troops, establishment of more facilities, and more regular docking and stationing of warships, submarines, and other armaments. The Aquino government has very much obliged, even justifying the increased US military presence by mouthing the US government’s pronouncements and policy positions regarding China.
“Every month we have ships coming. A few weeks ago, we had the submarines, we’ve had the aircraft carriers.” Roberto Garcia, chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, was quoted in a report published by the Interaksyon, November 14, 2012, with the title Special Report: Subic: It looks like a US base, it acts like a US base, but is it a US base? by John O’Callaghan and Manuel Mogato, Reuters.
Ever since the ouster of the US military bases in the country in 1991, never has the country seen more US troops, warships, submarines, and aircraft carriers staying and regularly docking in the country than last year.
The Aquino government has “allowed the US government to use the Philippines as a platform for its interventionism in the Asia-Pacific region,” wrote the Communist Party of the Philippines.
In 2012, top-ranking US defense and security officials also held frequent high-level talks with their counterparts in the Philippine government, mostly concerning the American military’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and roles they seem to want the Philippines to take; roles which the Aquino government seemed more than willing to play, as shown by how his government has been using ‘the China card,’ one of the supposed US justifications in beefing up its armed might in the region.
Contrary to the Constitutional ban on hosting foreign military bases and installations as well as the ban on the entry of nuclear weapons on Philippine soil and waters, the Aquino government has welcomed, and said they invited even, the US government’s increased deployment in the country.
“American troops act like kings in our own country. They dump their toxic garbage, rape and beat up our fellow Filipinos, because they know that the Filipino government will come to their rescue and invoke the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) so that they can go home scot-free,” said youth leader Vencer Crisostomo, chairman of Anakbayan.
Crisostomo was at the time reacting to news that two American soldiers who were part of the US-led ‘Balikatan’ war games, Keith Brautigan and Anthony DeSalvo, had ganged up on Allen John Gapulao, a bouncer at a bar in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. The incident last month was the latest in reported violence, crime and abuses committed by US troops in the Philippines.
Another huge controversy also in late 2012 involved the dumping off the coast of Subic Bay of 189,500 liters of untreated human waste and 760 liters of bilge water (oil and grease) earlier collected from US Navy ship Emory Land at Subic Bay waters.
These are just some of the reported untoward effects of increased US troops in the Philippines. Critics such as green groups fear there are more but are unreported.
In fact, secrecy hounds much of the US-Philippine government agreements, formal or informal, concerning the increased US military presence in these shores. Some details only become known to the public when controversies erupt, such as when US Navy human waste and bilge water were reported being dumped off the coast of Subic Bay in October; or when a Filipino translator was found dead in a US military camp in Zamboanga, and the said camp, including the existence of American intelligence liaison personnel operating in the Philippines, became known.
And this week, fishermen found a military drone with US military markings off the waters of Masbate province. The US Embassy in Manila denied it was armed nor used for intelligence gathering. Embassy spokeswoman Tina Malone belittled the drone as a type used in military training. But there was no ongoing military training when the drone was found. It is another incidence when Filipinos confirmed the US military are in fact flying drones here.
Under US President Barack Obama the US military is seen as increasing reliance on the use of drones and US Special Operations Forces. Both are now confirmed as present in the Philippines.
In 2012, Aquino regarded the comings and goings of US military warships and warplanes like ordinary business. Few details of its reasons for docking or landing here are reported by the mainstream media, mainly sourced from the press releases or statements of US and Philippine governments or military and merely meriting a short article or photo caption. The Filipino people are left in the dark over the full range of US military activities while in the Philippines.
In 2012, there were at least 80 reported dockings of US warships in the Philippines, some believed to be nuclear-armed given that these are flagships of the mighty US Pacific fleet. There may be more, as underscored by a surprise surfacing of a US military submarine in Philippine waters this year, which, according to reports, top officials of the Aquino government had no prior knowledge of.
According to media reports quoting releases and statements of the US military and their counterparts in the Philippines, some of these warships, submarines and repair ships stayed briefly or for days for repairs, for replenishment and for its crew to enjoy their liberty. These suggest that the US has facilities here for such.
In 2012, short of formally reopening the former US military bases, the US government and the Aquino government increasingly used the same bases and other facilities, though more discreetly – from having US military camps inside Philippine military camps to using outsourced private servicing for the US military. Examples for the latter include the Glenn Defense Marine.
Its Philippine subsidiary is headed by Vice Admiral Mateo Mayuga (Ret.), who said that they “provide logistics support to US Navy ships that visit the country. We give them a whole range of services,” of which the dumping of untreated water on Philippine seas is just a tiny part.
Glenn Defense Asia has been servicing the US Navy for several decades. It is also currently facing another case of dumping toxic waste at Manila Bay in 2011. Mayuga claimed that most of their releases (of US Navy wastes) are 17 miles from the shoreline, and “you can release (untreated waste water) 12 nautical miles outside a country’s territory.”
Other private contractors working for the US military are the shipyard repair companies, and perhaps, aircraft repair too, servicing US warships and warplanes in Subic, Zambales and Clark, Angeles City. The proliferation of companies servicing the US Armed Forces locally shows that there is always enough business for them due to the increased rotational presence of US troops and warships.
But what the Filipino people are also urged to be wary of is, behind the supposed “rotational” deployment of military “visitors” who technically never leave the country, there are military-related activities that go unreported. Or, when reported, are camouflaged in euphemisms.
Progressive patriotic groups such as the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan have, for example, often warned against the Balikatan military exercises and trainings, saying these cover actual military operations targeting Filipinos and other nationalities opposed to multinational corporate plunder.
Even the US troops’ supposed involvement in disaster responses raises questions in the light of reports that these may be part of intelligence gathering and that they might be installing military-related gadgets and facilities in far-flung areas that could help them in gathering intelligence and in resource mapping.
This year, the US government’s announcement of military assistance to the Philippines also dovetailed its planned pivot to Asia-Pacific, contrary to its supposed announcement that it is “standing by an ally” like the Philippines. The US was reported to have assured Aquino of providing a National Coast Watch Center by installing a state-of-the art radar system to monitor the Philippine coastline. At about the same time it announced that it is eyeing the Philippines as location for a crucial part of its missile “defense” system in the region.
The US and the Aquino governments deny that they are reviving the US bases in the Philippines, but there were reported ongoing talks for doing that, especially since the US military bases in Okinawa, Japan are being booted out by the Japanese, and the US is looking for countries to station the thousands more of troops they would be pulling out of Afghanistan and Guam.
Nevertheless, the Philippines is already being used as a forward operating base with the “semi-permanent” presence of US military troops and armaments in the country. The establishment of forward operating bases with semi-permanent US presence around the world, especially in key strategic areas, has been the thrust of the US Defense Department in order to project US military hegemony at less cost.
“The Philippines is being used by the US military as an operations base of its large flotilla of interventionist troops plying the sea routes in and around the Philippines,” the CPP said in a statement. The 80 dockings by American warships at the former US naval base at Subic, in Manila Bay as well as other ports, practically translates to the daily presence of American forces in some parts of the Philippines, the group said. These add to the military base of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTFP) inside Camp Navarro that permanently hosts at least 700 American soldiers, according to the US government. Top US military leaders drop by here first even before meeting with the Philippine president.
American military’s participation in local war
In the past, witnesses had reported that US troops were taking part in local military operations. In 2012, more US military intervention in local counterinsurgency operations is noted as indicated in the agreements signed last month by officials of the Philippine and US military.
Five new terms of reference were signed by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Jessie Dellosa and US Pacific Command commander Admiral Samuel James Locklear in a series of meetings by the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board on December 2012.
Among others, the new agreements call for the creation of a technology and experimentation subcommittee on civil-military operations, a humanitarian and disaster response working group and the activation of a counter-terrorism working group.
As with past agreements, there is yet no full disclosure of its provisions. The CPP said these indicate “further deepening US involvement in the internal affairs of the Philippines, particularly in the implementation of the AFP’s Oplan Bayanihan war of suppression.”
In fact, the Oplan Bayanihan itself was designed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) based on the Counterinsurgency Guide of 2009 issued by the US State Department. It is being implemented with the guidance of US military advisers.
“Involvement of US military forces in counter-insurgency planning and operations in the Philippines constitutes interference in the internal affairs of the Philippines,” the CPP said, adding “The US is using its puppet regime to carry out its war by proxy against the armed resistance and non-armed movement which are fighting for national liberation from US domination and oppression.”
Past congressional meetings on resolutions to terminate or review the VFA had revealed that aside from providing strategic advice, US military forces have been involved in tactical operations, providing local military with intelligence and logistical support.
“The Filipino people must hold the Obama government accountable for the mounting human rights abuses being committed by the Aquino regime’s armed forces, police personnel and state-attached paramilitary groups in the course of the US-directed Oplan Bayanihan,” the CPP said. “Behind the rhetoric of peace and human rights repeated ad nauseum by Aquino and his military officials is the fact that cases of extrajudicial killings, abductions and disappearances, illegal arrest and detention, torture and other forms of military abuses continue to increase by the day.”
“The claim that the US wants to merely defend our country out of the goodness of their hearts is highly ignorant of international realities,” said Vencer Crisostomo of Anakbayan. He reminded the Filipino people that the U.S violated the independence of Libya by bombing it; the U.S has killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan with its ‘predator drones’; and the US has been assisting Israel in the ongoing massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”
For this reason, calls to block the US government’s use of the Philippines for its regional power projection were continuously aired in 2012. Some legislators led by the Makabayan bloc in the lower house and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago in the Senate have called for the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Makabayan bloc of party-list representatives said in their joint resolution that “the VFA has been widely criticized as an onerous agreement that has paved the way for the permanent presence and basing of US troops in the country under the guise of year-round military exercises including “Balikatan” since 2002.