Starting Monday the 15th annual US-Philippine joint (Balikatan) military exercises under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement will roll out in various sites in the country. Nearly 10,000 American and Filipino soldiers will undergo 10 days of training in warfare.
This is a massive exercise for the US, which will deploy 55 aircraft, including its much-touted Ospreys, and at least five warships. For its part, the AFP will use two brand-new FA-50 fighter jets, S-211s, and two refurbished former US battleships.
Balikatan this year will take place within the framework of the recently announced deal which essentially allows American military forces to build facilities and pre-position war materiel in five mini US bases within existing Philippine facilities. (The Supreme Court gave the green light last month to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA, under which the new scheme will fall.)
War buffs are anticipating the “showcasing” by the US – in live-fire exercises at the Crow Valley gunnery range in Capas, Tarlac – of its newest addition to a multiple-launch rocket system called Himars (high-mobility artillery rocket system).
Touted as an anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and ground-warfare asset, the Himars’ supposed edge is that it’s fired from a highly mobile wheeled chassis, which can be rapidly moved away “before enemy forces can locate its launching site,” thus evading a missile counter-attack. Its operation “engages artillery air-defense concentrations, trucks, light armor and personnel carriers, (plus) support troops and supply concentrations,” according to one newspaper report based on documents provided by the Balikatan public affairs office.
“Later,” the report adds, the Himars “will be brought to Palawan although it would not be doing some live-fire exercises in Palawan.” The most likely place will be the Antonio Bautista Air Base in that province – one of the five military bases offered for US access. That’s where the questions begin to arise.
The airbase faces the South China Sea and the Spratly islands, where China has constructed artificial islands on islets and reefs and set up airport and seaport facilities. China has ignored the protests and denunciations of neighboring countries also laying claim over these maritime areas: the Phjlippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
After showing off the Himars’ warfare capabilities in the Balikatan exercises, for what purpose has the US decided – with the P-Noy government consenting – to move these weapons to Palawan? The Himars being parked there will surely spur China to claim that it’s a “provocative act” by both the US and the Philippines. The objective effect will be to aggravate the tensions in the South China Sea.
(To recall, in 2012 China seized control of the Scarborough or Panatag shoal that the Philippines rightly claims as our fishing grounds, since it’s well within our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.)
Provoking more conflict won’t do any good. All the parties involved must persist in pursuing diplomacy and restrain belligerent initiatives and responses by everyone. This, to my mind, is the appropriate, responsible stance in disputes that may take a long time to resolve.
Having said that, I see a positive factor in the pushback by citizens, including church leaders, against the virtually continual stationing of US forces and facilities inside AFP bases in their localities.
In Cagayan de Oro, some bishops and multisectoral groups are preparing for concerted action on April 7, protesting against American military presence in Lumbia Air Base in the city.
They are highlighting century-old lessons learned from the Battle of Cagayan de Misamis on April 7, 1900 – a little-known uprising against American forces occupying the area. The Filipinos failed in their desperate attack launched against the military barracks, but those who sacrificed their lives are now recognized as heroes.
To encourage participation in the protest, forums are being held to discuss the 1900 uprising. “Education on history and nationalism is vital,” said Bishop Rudy Juliada of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. “Many of us do not know our past, we do not know how local heroes fought for freedom, and because of lack of knowledge we are not critical on the [current] issues.”
The organizers aim to build a multisectoral alliance against EDCA, to include interfaith groups, local government officials, homeowners, the academic community, farmers, indigenous peoples, business groups, and lawyers.
From the Catholic information service UCAN News, I came across statements from two church leaders criticizing EDCA and opposing the renewed presence of US troops here.
Bishop Roberto Mallari of the San Jose diocese in Nueva Ecija (whose jurisdiction includes Fort Magsaysay in Laur) pointed out: “US military bases in the country will create more problems than solutions.” If EDCA is intended to modernize the AFP, he doubted it could happen. Further, he said that with US military presence the church “fears an increase in human rights violations.”
For his part, Bishop Pedro Arigo of Palawan warned that the installation of US military facilities in his province would aggravate tensions between Chinese maritime forces and Filipino fishermen. And “because our own government is incapable of providing strong military support,” he lamented, “many Palawan residents will take [the US military presence] as a necessary evil.”
Rape cases, prostitution, drug problems and increased HIV/AIDS incidence will become bigger problems once the foreign military presence is established, he said.
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Published in the Philippine Star
April 2, 2016