Foolhardy military steps to counter China bullying

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

It wasn’t just a foolhardy turn (as I wrote here last week) that the Department of Foreign Affairs welcomed with alacrity the Pentagon’s announced intention to deploy in the Philippines “various advanced air force, naval and maritime-domain equipment” — to be manned by US personnel — in response to China’s bullying in the West Philippine Sea.

In fact, the DFA stance typifies the ingrained mindset within President Aquino’s cabinet national security cluster, from which he gets advice on military and foreign affairs. Such mindset has been institutionalized as policy through the EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement), a 2014 US-Phl “executive agreement” that would effectively restore multiple US military bases across the country. (It’s good that patriotic groups are questioning the EDCA’s constitutionality before the Supreme Court.)

Meantime there’s this report that a “70-acre facility” in the former Subic Naval Base is being upgraded, at the cost of $230 million, to accommodate US warships and fighter jets. (The SNB was the largest American overseas naval base until 1991, when the Senate voted against extending the 1945 RP-US Military Bases Agreement.)

But the Aquino government now welcomes not only US military presence in Philippine soil.

Early last month, in a joint press conference with visiting Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin made an astounding announcement: the Philippines would establish basing arrangements for the American and Japanese militaries.

In the same breath Gazmin expanded his announcement, declaring that, under a plan to “roll back” China’s aggressive actions in the SCS/WPS, the Philippines would allow the US, Japan and “other allies” access to the country’s military bases. On what legal basis, he didn’t say.

hat’s clear is that all these propositions are in step with the US “pivot” or “rebalancing” policy: to move 60 percent of its military forces into Asia-Pacific by 2020.

Japan’s resurgence as a military power — ancillary to the US in Asia-Pacific — is being aggressively pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with US backing. Abe seeks to amend the post-World War II American-crafted constitution that restricts the military’s role inside Japan, to give Japan the “right of collective self-defense” and allow it to come to the aid of an ally under attack.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times, in December 2012, that the Philippines would support the scrapping of that restrictive clause in the Japanese constitution.

During his first visit to Japan early this month, new US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter welcomed the progress attained in broadening the scope of the US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines. He added that he would welcome Japanese air patrols in the South China Sea. (Japan already patrols the East China Sea where it’s been in a dispute with China over the Sensaku/Daioyu islands).

On the US military equipment deployment plan, Secretary del Rosario said he hadn’t known about it, so he would fly to Washington soon “to find out more about what these plans involve.”

He should have read what the new Pentagon chief said in mid-April. Speaking at the Arizona State University McCain Institute, Carter declared Asia-Pacific as the “defining region in America’s future” where it could deploy the most advanced technology, including its newest air and naval assets.

Among these assets, Carter cited the following:

• Forward deployment of two additional Aegis-missile-defense-equipped ships;

• Deployment of the railgun, a new weapon that uses electromagnetic force rather than high explosives to fire rounds at much higher speed, lower cost, and with greater effectiveness;

• High-end air and sea weapons, such as a new long-range Stealth bomber and new long-range anti-ship cruise missiles; and

• New space electronic warfare and other advance capabilities including “some surprising ones.”

Which of these, if any, does the US plan to deploy in the Philippines? All are definitely beyond the capabilities of the AFP to handle, which was why del Rosario acknowledged that such deployment “will require US [military] presence.”

For his part, AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., told the media on Monday — after the start of the 31st Balikatan (joint Phl-US annual/semiannual military exercises) — that he was preparing a “wish list” of military equipment to be purchased from the US to modernize the AFP’s capability. Del Rosario would bring the shopping list to Washington.

Among what Catapang wishes to buy is the type of amphibious tank rolled out (21 in all) of the US Navy’s giant warship USS Green Bay last Tuesday in a mock landing-for-battle on the Zambales shoreline. “We want to have capability on wetland, marshland and beach landings,” he explained, hoping that the US military would train Filipino counterparts on how to operate the tanks.

The American deputy Balikatan director, Brig. Gen. Christopher Mahoney, described the exercise as a “territorial defense scenario,” wherein strained state-to-state relations with a fictitious neighboring country “Calabania” (China?) led to the latter’s aggressive military action and invasion of Luzon. The amphibious tanks were fielded from the US ship to battle the “invading forces.”

But why would Catapang wish for such type of amphibious tank? Should the deal entail the buying of a ship similar to the USS Green Bay? How much would the purchases cost?

It looks like the Balikatan exercises have become a marketing scheme for expensive US war materiel, and Catapang was hooked into buying. The US sales pitch: the Balikatan drills are aimed at “improving interoperability” between the two militaries, and the best way to achieve that, supposedly, is for the AFP to buy US war equipment.

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Published in The Philippine Star
April 25, 2015

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