The negotiations between the Philippine and US governments is just on its first round but the results are already predictable since both sides are saying exactly the same thing about the whys and wherefores of this new “framework agreement” to supposedly lay down “general parameters and principles to guide the increased rotational presence” of American troops in the country.
For one, both are agreed that the new agreement is “necessary” in light of China’s belligerence over its territorial claims in the South China Sea and in consonance with the US “pivot” or “shift” of its military might, especially its naval forces and equipment, to the Asia Pacific region in order to better deal with the rise of a potential “peer rival” — China — within the region and beyond.
They both vehemently deny that the objective is to bring back US bases into the Philippines since that is clearly disallowed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. A new bases treaty would have to go through the messy process of negotiations, treaty ratification by the Senate and a national referendum while again running the risk of its not being reciprocally ratified by the US Congress, casting doubt on its validity.
And of course both are in complete sync as they roll out the tired-old rhetoric about strengthening the Philippine-US “strategic alliance,” helping to “modernize” the decrepit Armed Forces of the Philippines, joining hands and “enhancing inter-operability for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations,” and bolstering the capability of the Philippines to undertake “maritime security and maritime domain awareness.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario promises transparency in the negotiations but the government negotiators’ statements are generating more questions than providing answers and spurring even more suspicions and controversies.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta, who heads the Philippine negotiating panel, says that the “increased rotational presence” of US troops and “increased access” to Philippine territory are well within the parameters of the existing agreements, the sixty-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the newer 14-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). If so, why the need for a new agreement?
The attempt to package the current “negotiations” as a “new executive agreement” and “not a renegotiation of VFA and MDT” is meant to avoid a resurrection of the objections to the VFA, especially its unconstitutionality (notwithstanding the Supreme Court decision otherwise, considering the track record of the SC of flip-flopping on many issues regarding constitutionality and national sovereignty) and the fact that the subject matter being “negotiated” in fact requires a treaty between the two countries and not just an executive agreement.
Under the VFA (and the oft-forgotten Mutual Logistics and Servicing Agreement or MLSA) the US is already able to maintain a de facto permanent presence. This is exemplified by the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, a contingent of about 500 members of the United States military based on a Philippine military base in Mindanao, inside an exclusive US facility that is officially declared as “temporary.” Consequently, the so-called “increased rotational presence” of US troops is actually a mere euphemism for increased de facto permanent presence.
Also under the VFA and MLSA, the US is already able to use its former naval base in Subic Bay as well as other ports for regular ship visits that have been increasing in number and frequency under the Aquino administration. According to DND Usec. Pio Lorenzo Batino, a member of the Philippine negotiating panel, under the new “access agreement” US naval and air assets would again be “stationed” in some parts of military facilities such as in Subic. His statements imply a much longer presence or as a US defense analyst put it, a “semi-permanent” stay.
One new and significant element in the “negotiations” is the possible use of the pre-stationed armaments (ships and aircraft, including drones) for local purposes. According to Mr. Batino, the Philippine government is looking to use these “temporarily deployed equipment… for key mission areas such as maritime security, maritime domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.” This of course can and will include the rest of what the US military calls “stability operations” such as “foreign internal defense” which is just a euphemism for supporting counter-insurgency operations.
More disturbing, under the cover of the VFA, the US has in fact been able to establish secret facilities that it has complete control and sovereignty over.
This was revealed in official investigative reports by the Dutch Police on the case filed versus Prof. Jose Maria Sison for “inciting to murder” (which the Dutch courts subsequently dismissed due to the charges and submitted testimonies being “politically tainted”). These contained categorical statements that the testimonies of witnesses against Mr. Sison were taken by Dutch police investigators in places not under the Philippine government’s authority in order that the witnesses would supposedly be free from any influence or pressure from the Philippine government.
Such identified places were the Dutch embassy, the US embassy and an existing US facility in the former Clark Air Base. The latter is evidently a secret facility, since there is no public knowledge and no official Philippine acknowledgment or even information on the existence of such a US facility in that area. No doubt the new agreement being “negotiated” will provide even greater leeway for the US to put up more of such secret and exclusively US facilities.
The US and Philippine governments are trying to pull a fast one over the Filipino people. With all the questions raised over the VFA and continuing US presence and activities — from the drone washed to a Masbate beach to the minesweeper that rammed the Tubattaha coral reefs — any new negotiations should begin with a review of the VFA and MLSA and should lead to their rescinding or abrogation.
Instead the US and Philippine governments have conditioned our minds to believe that the MDT, VFA and MLSA have been good for us but are not good enough to deal with current and foreseeable needs and threats, thus a need for a new executive agreement to allow — nay, justify — more US military presence.
The furor over the Chinese incursions into Philippine territory has certainly added to the justification, and suspicion has also arisen that even the recent bombings in Mindanao may somehow be part of that mind-conditoning.
From the outset, the US and Philippine governments have flagrantly used the VFA as a cover and excuse for patently unconstitutional ends, such as US forces conducting combat and combat support operations (e.g. intelligence operations) under the guise of military exercises, humanitarian missions and civic-military actions. Aside from so-called military training exercises being conducted against actual live targets (e.g. Abu Sayyaf) and using live ammunition, cases have been documented of US forces involved in actual combat operations, albeit described as “defensive operations with the option to fire back when fired upon.”
The ongoing “negotiations” smack of a setup and a sellout, a veritable “lutong makaw.”
Published in Business World
15 August 2013