“The US government is trying to hide behind the technicality that they would not set up a permanent military base or that their troops would only have increased rotational presence here, but as it is, US troops will always be in the country on a war footing and they can use any of our military camps to attack other countries.” – Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Although the details of Philippine and US proposals in the US-PH “Framework Agreement on Increased Rotational Presence” are being kept under wraps, some are coming to light, though incomplete and unverified, as both negotiators from the Philippine and US and defense officials answered media queries.
In a press conference in Malacañang during his visit last Friday Aug. 30, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly said “I’m looking to increase our rotational presence here as we have done recently in Singapore and Australia.”
He added that such an arrangement would benefit the armed forces of both countries by increasing their capability to train and operate together.
Based on initial reports from Philippine negotiators, the negotiation covers parameters or rules about US troops basing and maintaining facilities in existing military camps of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“The US government is trying to hide behind the technicality that they would not set up a permanent military base or that their troops would only have increased rotational presence here, but as it is, US troops will always be in the country on a war footing and they can use any of our military camps to attack other countries,” said Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares in a statement.
This US basing within existing military camps came to light when Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said a day after opening negotiations that they wanted to “insist” that there would be no exclusive-for-US-troops-only areas in Philippine military camps, as have been reportedly happening in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City and Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
That arrangement would allow what Hagel said: “Deepening engagement opportunities between our forces would further support President Aquino’s defense modernization agenda.”
In a news report published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, it noted that even “before both countries could sign a deal, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin appeared to throw Philippine doors wide open to American troops and vessels.
Gazmin said American troops and vessels would gain access not only to the former naval base in Subic, Zambales, but also to military facilities across the archipelago.”
The Aquino government has repeatedly pitched for an expanded US military presence in the country. It keeps on citing the country’s supposed need to boost its “minimum credible defense posture,” largely due to the territorial dispute with China. Toward building such “defense posture,” the Aquino government’s planned modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was enacted into law in December 2012, with corresponding billions of pesos in budget plus undetermined billions more of discretionary funds from President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s approximate P1.3 trillion ($29.147 million) discretionary funds in just a year.
The Aquino government’s welcoming stance for US troops not only dovetails the US pivot to Asia-Pacific, it also dovetails the US drive to meet its “defense strategy” of maintaining US hegemony even amid long-term budget cuts, reducing capacity (meaning reduced number of Army brigades, Navy ships, Air Force squadrons and Marine battalions) but increasing capability (or leaner and meaner US “defense forces”). As the Philippine government enters into an agreement that would push its forces into greater “interoperability” and “cooperation” with US forces, the Philippines also adds to US forces’ capability.
Putting the Philippines at risk
“This agreement would definitely put our country on the radar of US enemies and place our country men in harm’s way,” said Rep. Colmenares.
According to Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Luzviminda Ilagan, “The Aquino government should rethink its military alignment with the US government. The US is a country that is consistently initiating wars of aggression, from funding mercenaries against governments to falsely accusing sovereign states of harboring weapons of mass destruction as in Iraq and now in Syria. Do we really want to be on the same side with the US?”
But another risk that the increased US military presence poses as it helps “modernize” and “cooperate” with local troops is its increasing intervention in Philippine affairs. The latest example, according to Anakbayan, was the deployment of a drone ostensibly to take photos of the Aug. 26 “Million March” protest against the pork barrel system.
Since the return of US troops in the country, after the closure of the US military bases in 1991, the US has been accused of participating in combat operations in Mindanao.
Under pressure to explain, both the US and Philippine governments have denied this saying that US troops only provide support to Philippine troops such as in airlifting wounded soldiers and providing intelligence support, as if intelligence activities are not an essential part of combat operations.
Increasing sale of US arms?
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States has consistently dominated the global arms market. Today, it is selling more than three fourths of worldwide arms. Overseas weapons sales by the United States totaled $66.3 billion in 2011, gobbling more than three-quarters of global arms market valued at $85.3 billion. Russia was a distant second, with $4.8 billion in deals. China was farther down the list at number 6, with correspondingly much smaller share of arms market.
“In reality, the U.S. uses arms exports and joint military exercises to gain access to overseas bases and to establish the infrastructure and interoperability necessary for U.S. intervention,” said Anna Rich in a paper on post-Cold War US defense strategy as early as 2001. Bulatlat.com has also reported early this year how US military exercises such as CARAT and Bayanihan are actually serving like a grand trade show of US arms, where in the name of “interoperability,” local troops get to sample and train at using US arms. This, according to analysts, helps the US sell arms and with that, consultancy and after-sales services, which further add to US military presence and influence.
With the US pivot and the Aquino government’s embrace of it, progressive groups reiterate their long-standing criticisms of the increasingly larger share of the military in the national budget.
For example, the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance asked in a statement after the aerial strike in Sagada, Mountain Province, “how much was spent for the military operations in Sagada? How much exactly is national government spending for Oplan Bayanihan? How much discretionary fund and Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) was used? How much is a bullet? A bomb? An attack helicopter? Aviation fuel?”
The Cordillera group is furious, “To think that indigenous peoples in the Cordillera and the rest of the country are historically marginalized and neglected, and to think that it is the people’s money and resources systematically corrupted and spent on senseless doings. These are the very resources used to kill people, destroy ancestral lands, communities, papayew, forests and watersheds.”
US rebalancing in Asia-Pacific, announced in 2012, seems to have paid off already for the US, just for starters. Said an arms control year-end report, in 2012, for the first time since 2007, the Middle East has been supplanted by another region, this time Asia-Pacific, as the region that requested the highest value of conventional arms from the U.S. in 2012. Data on proposed US arms export agreements in 2012 show that three of the top five countries that sought the highest values of U.S. arms exports were located in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea).
The report noted that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is “clearly illustrated by U.S. conventional arms sales in 2012 and is a pattern that is likely to continue in the near future as countries in the region attempt to bolster their conventional forces in the face of China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Even if data show that China’s military budget and share in arms sale are much too small compared to that of the US, “it’s important to scare people about China, too, at least so that the countries surrounding that bugaboo nation will start gobbling American arms, namely, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, et al,” as Bob Dreyfuss, blogger of nation.com on America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense said in the week Hagel was touring four South East Asian states.
During Hagel’s visit, various reports noted how the Pentagon is offering ships, radar and other security assistance to countries in Southeast Asia, “partly as a counterbalance to China’s military build-up.” At the ASEAN, Hagel tried to consolidate their gains by meeting up with the defense ministers from 10 Southeast Asia countries plus Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Framework on IRP seeking more of the same?
The termination of the US-RP Military Bases Agreement by the Philippine Senate in 1991 resulted in the pull out of US troops in the country, and the corresponding reduction in US military aid to the Philippines. But this historical turning point in the country was reversed by succeeding agreements, which the framework agreement on IRP, currently being negotiated, now appears headed to expand and consolidate.
The return of US troops in the Philippines was provided a framework in the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999. By 2001, the eventual return of US troops here began with US-RP Balikatan exercises, followed by more joint military exercises. The Balikatan joint US-RP military exercises held in April 2013 was the 29th and said to be the largest, so far.
To provide the “visiting troops” their needed accommodation and facilities for its operations, the US-RP Mutual Logistics Support Agreement in 2007 gave the US troops access to Philippine ports, airports, military camps. It also allowed the US troops to maintain facilities inside AFP military camps for their exclusive use. Citing this MLSA and VFA, Filipino defense authorities had been quick to dismiss accusations from progressive groups in Mindanao that US troops are maintaining “secret military bases.”
With the VFA, MLSA, joint military exercises and training, US troops have been in the country on a “semi-permanent” basis. While US Special Forces soldiers rotate in and out of the country, at any given time, there are 600 to 1,000 US troops in the country for joint military exercises, military trainings, conducting surveys and providing intelligence and logistical support to the AFP.
Given that the US military is already enjoying such virtual military basing passes, how much more of an increase do the US want, what forms will it take, and what are the implications for the Philippines? Two weeks since official negotiations started, there remains scant information about it, except for confirmation that there would be an unspecified increase in the number of US troops deployed on a semi-permanent basis, an increase in access and facilities of US troops, more frequent visits of warships, submarines, jet fighters and the like.