Philippine, Japan roles in US ‘rebalancing’ plan

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

When US President Barack Obama comes to Manila on Monday, capping a four-country trip in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines), will the Aquino government gift him with a signed agreement that would “give American ships and planes the most extensive access to (Philippine military) bases” since the two huge US bases were thrown out of here in 1992?

With implicit certainty, the International New York Times reported Wednesday that Obama was expected to announce such an agreement on Monday, describing it as “the centerpiece” of his trip — which aims to reassure their allies of America’s treaty commitments, respond to China’s growing assertiveness as a regional economic-military power, and promote the US role in the region’s economic growth.

The accord “is a modest step to reassert America’s military presence in Asia,” the INYT pointed out adding, “But it could nonetheless antagonize China.”

(China has been enmeshed in a maritime-claim dispute with the Philippines over the Panatag/Scarborough Shoal, the Ayungin Shoal and other small island groups in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.)

The exact provisions of the agreement — the subject of negotiations since 2012, and recently renamed “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” from “Increased Rotational (Troop) Presence” — have been kept under wraps by both the US and Philippine governments.

Once announced as a done deal, the agreement’s provisions should be made public for any concerned party to question and challenge — whether they are equitable, just, legal or constitutional.

The department of foreign affairs, which played second fiddle to the defense department in the negotiations, has couched the objectives of the EDCA/IRP in terms that require definitive clarifications. For instance:

• Increasing the presence of US troops on a “rotational basis” in Philippine territory (averaging 600 armed personnel since 2002) towards developing a “minimum credible defense posture.”

• Building this minimum credible defense posture in order to “enhance maritime domain awareness” and to “develop a deterrence capability.”

• Developing “deterrence capability” through “high-impact and high-value” joint military exercises which promote “interoperability and capacity-building” that will also bolster “humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

The core issue in the EDCA, however, is military access and facilities. The US would be allowed to build its own military facilities within Philippine bases/camps (foreign bases within national bases?), provided Filipino military (and civilian?) officials would have access to such facilities. (The decade-old US facility built within a Philippine base in Zamboanga City has been off-limits to Filipinos.)

This is much more controversial than increased troop presence. It runs smack against the 1987 Constitution (Transitory Provisions, Section 25), which bans “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities… except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

Both governments regard the deal as an executive agreement, not a treaty, that doesn’t need Senate concurrence. They claim that the US troop presence and the facilities built and still to be built are “upon the request of the Philippine government” and are allowed under the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999, which “merely” implements the US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951.

But whereas the US stands to gain much — not just modestly — under the EDCA, the supposed benefits to the Philippines are dubious.

For one, under the Mutual Defense Treaty the US is supposed to come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of an external attack or invasion. Yet, no American official has categorically stated the US would do so if China initiates an armed attack against our country, or any part of its territory.

Assurances of support have repeatedly been given, but when it involves maritime or territorial disputes with China, the US has declared that officially it takes a neutral stand.

This contrasts with the categorical assurance to Japan recently given by President Obama, in a written reply to Yomiuri Shimbun questions regarding the Japan-China dispute over the Sensaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Obama wrote:

“The policy of the US is clear – the Sensaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security… And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

How explain the variance between the US-RP mutual defense treaty and that with Japan?

One explanation is that the US-RP treaty has been deliberately rendered vague on this point as to be utterly useless to the Philippines, which a former member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (2009-2011), Robert Kaplan, derisively describes as “America’s colonial burden.”

In his recent book, Kaplan portrays the Philippines as a “semi-failed entity with weak institutions and an extremely weak military” that the US exploits as a pawn to maintain its geopolitical dominance in Asia.

On the other hand, Japan is the prime surrogate of the US in Asia. The Obama administration has encouraged the Shinzo Abe government — disregarding the US-crafted pacifist constitution — to pursue a more assertive security policy and build up its air and naval forces, both for self-defense and to back up US geopolitical objectives in Asia.

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April 26, 2014

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