“The terms are so broad that we can assume that US forces will have unlimited access and indefinite stay in the Philippines, alongside the opportunity of being granted effective control of certain PH facilities for the storage of equipment and weapons and billeting of troops. All that is basing even if they don’t admit to it.” – Renato Reyes, Bayan
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — What are they ‘negotiating’ about exactly?
The negotiations between US and Philippine officials over a Framework Agreement on Increased Rotational Presence is shrouded in mystery even as the holding of negotiations itself is being announced in the media.
What is being talked about, the proposals and counter proposals from both panels, the contentious issues and differing positions, if any, and what really is expected to come out of the negotiations and its implications on the country are being kept from the public. All the public gets is an assurance that what would come out is within the framework of the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Already, with the US pivot to Asia and with the Aquino government practically begging the US for its support, US troops’ presence in the Philippines has markedly increased. In 2012, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, US ships made 197 port calls in the Philippines, while some 444 American aircraft were cleared for landing in Philippines’ airports. These “visits” represent increases of more than twice or thrice compared to past “visits.” Most happened amid protestations and criticisms from patriotic groups.
Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the panels from the Philippine and US governments would talk of the “modalities” of this increased presence of US forces in the Philippines. Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino, a panel member, reportedly tried to sell the ongoing ‘negotiation’ as “an opportunity to insist on clearer safeguards for national concerns.” Batino was a lawyer who, in a congressional inquiry on the VFA a couple of years ago, stopped the military leaders from revealing further some of the activities of US forces in the Philippines by citing “national security.”
Selling the country on another military bases agreement, but in another name?
A day after the start of negotiations, Philippine Star said Batino told the media “There should be full control of Philippine authority over AFP-owned facilities.”
There have been increased sensitivity over US military facilities even if they were “built within the existing rules and regulations of the VFA,” as members of the Legislative Oversight Committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement (LOVFA) called the “secret US military bases” exposed by various progressive groups who conducted fact-finding missions in Zamboanga City in 2008.
Patriotic groups have warned again last year that the US is reopening its former military bases in the Philippines or using areas within Philippine military camps, or camouflaged by private contractors of US armed forces. An example is the US Joint Special Operations Task-Force Philippines (JSOTF-P) in Zamboanga, headquarters of 600 to 800 US Special Operations Forces.
Another is an area in Camp Aguinaldo with powerful communications equipment reportedly being operated by the US military. Some Filipino generals have previously complained about not being allowed entry into the JSOTF-P in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga. In Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, journalists covering a congressional probe on the US troops’ reported permanent stay in a high-tech area there were reportedly not allowed to take video footages of it.
This Thursday August 15, Batino reportedly said: “We will insist that there will be no areas exclusive to US troops.” But there was no report as to how they would enforce that, assuming they succeeded in “insisting” about it in the negotiations.
Perhaps responding as well to persistent complaints that the Aquino government is violating the Constitution by allowing into the country warships and aircrafts that are likely nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta, head of the Philippine panel negotiating the framework agreement on increased presence of US troops, said that “mere suspicion that a US asset has nuclear weapons is enough to deny access.”
But representatives of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), citing “weaknesses,” have previously admitted they cannot watch the Philippine coastlines 24/7. In fact, they were surprised when a US minesweeper sailed and got stuck at a no-sail zone in Tubbataha reef early this year. The minesweeper reportedly ignored frantic calls of Philippine authorities urging it to stop and turn around. Worse, it barred Philippine park rangers from boarding the minesweeper.
“There is no real gain from giving US forces de facto basing opportunities in our land. It is an assault on our sovereignty. It violates the Constitutional ban on foreign basing,” said Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes, Jr. He warned that the country would be “reduced to one giant weapons depot for US forces. The country would be used as a staging ground for US intervention such as drone strikes in other parts of the world.”
In Korea, the people are reportedly resisting US efforts to build a military installation at scenic Jeju Island. In Okinawa, Japan, the people have reportedly also chafed loudly at the US military presence. Talks that the Philippines is being eyed as location for thousands more of US troops to be moved from Guam had circulated as early as when the pivot or rebalancing was first announced. In 2012, frequent high-level talks between the US and Philippine foreign affairs and military leaders were held.
“The plan to grant the US greater military access to local ports and infrastructure and extending rights to set up its own facilities has long been agreed upon by the Aquino government and the US military. This arrangement was clinched in the Strategic Defense Dialogue held in Washington way back in January 2012 right after US President Obama declared his government’s strategy to pivot towards Asia where it plans to deploy more than half of its naval overseas troops,” the CPP said in a statement.
As such, the group concluded that “the so-called US and Philippine negotiations are nothing but a masquerade to make it appear that the puppet Aquino regime is concerned with defending Philippine sovereignty.”
As the pronouncements of Philippine panel members to the negotiations showed, they are indeed trying to assure Filipinos that concerns such as about the US troops’ exclusive use of parts of Philippine military camps, or concerns about nuke arms, are being addressed.
“Considering the Aquino regime’s display of all-out subservience to the US, current negotiations between his officials and the US military will undoubtedly be geared towards strengthening US foothold in the Philippines and its use of the Philippines as a US military outpost in the Asia-Pacific,” the CPP warned.
As the co-author of VFA, former Senator and now Rep. Biazon, said this Thursday, in defending his support for the “expanded rotational presence” of US forces, “We’re approaching Cold War situation.” He likened today to the period when the Philippines formed alliance with US, which gave rise to Military Basing Agreement and Military Assistance Agreement.
Biazon recalled that the VFA came to being after the Military Bases Agreement was terminated, and that only since then did “we become sensitive to constitutionality of VFA.”
He defended the constitutionality of VFA, saying that as it is “still there, allowing US troops’ presence, its constitutionality is no longer questionable – it’s already there.” Biazon added, in Filipino, “What is the problem in just adding to what is already there?”
The problem is, as Roger Soluta of KMU said in a statement, “The Filipino people have been paying dearly for the government’s puppetry in allowing the US to increase its military presence in the country. Our women have been raped, our fellow Filipinos have been killed, our farms and coral reefs have been destroyed because of US military presence.”
A ‘legal shortcut’ to basing agreement?
The “prohibition of presence of foreign troops, bases, is not absolute – the Constitution says it can happen provided it passes thru senate ratification or thru plebiscite,” Rep. Rodolfo Biazon told reporters this Thursday August 15, a day after the start of negotiation between US and PH panels on expanded US military presence. Biazon wants to be in a committee that would review that.
But the Aquino may well bypass Congress by crafting instead an executive agreement, the group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said in a statement.
“The Aquino government wants to take legal short cuts, bypass the Senate and fast-track the implementation of the access agreement,” Reyes said.
The group also observed that the proposals made by the DND and DFA are “broader in scope than the VFA but also remain vague and open-ended.”
“When the Philippine government speaks of rotational US troops, these are in fact permanent and continuing military deployments. US troops, even if by different batches, can be stationed in Clark or Subic for an indefinite period of time. When one batch leaves, another comes in to replace them. They will be here all the time. That is permanent,” Reyes said. (See also: Euphemisms increase with US military expansion)
In a congressional hearing on the VFA, military heads at the VFA Commission admitted that indeed, after the VFA was signed, not a day passes that US troops are not here in the Philippines.
“The terms are so broad that we can assume that US forces will have unlimited access and indefinite stay in the Philippines, alongside the opportunity of being granted effective control of certain PH facilities for the storage of equipment and weapons and billeting of troops. All that is basing even if they don’t admit to it,” Reyes said.