On May 7-18, the Duterte government will engage in its third Balikatan joint military exercises with the United States since October 2016. The exercises will have two new features: 1) participation of Japan and Australia, both America’s close cohorts in Asia and, 2) the start of construction, inside a Philippine base, of the first of five US facilities wherein the superpower can “preposition” military equipment and supplies for its exclusive use in operations in the Asia-Pacific region.
Verily, these new features of the joint exercises signify the Duterte government’s tightening involvement in the United States’ military operations and geopolitical ambitions in Asia-Pacific, which has crucial, adverse bearings on Philippine sovereignty and national security.
The participation of Japan and Australia – to what extent has yet to be shown – begins to transform Balikatan from a bilateral arrangement under the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999 to a multilateral exercise that can raise legal and constitutional questions.
On the other hand, the construction of US military facilities inside Philippine military bases – off limits to Filipinos, both military and civilian – is provided under the 2013 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The first to be built, with groundbreaking ceremonies held last April 17, will be a military warehouse in Basa Air Base in Pampanga. Four other facilities will be sited inside Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City, and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu City.
These developments need closer watching, in light of two factors: 1) America’s buildup of its military presence in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS) vis-a-vis China’s aggressive militarization of the artificial islands it has built there on reefs it claims to own (but also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan); and 2) the brightening prospects of a final peace settlement of the 1950s war between South Korea and North Korea, tied up with an accord to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. In the prospective negotiations, both China and the US are playing key roles.
At this point, one can mull over these two prospects:
• Should the China-US rivalry over supremacy in SCS/WPS (projected further in the whole Asia-Pacific) turn more bellicose toward military confrontation, the five planned US facilities inside Philippine military bases would be of prime importance to America’s effective capability in the area. However, the situation would expose such facilities – and the Philippine bases too – to preemptive or retaliatory attacks by China and drag the country into the armed conflict.
• Should the two Koreas sign a final peace accord and put in place a program for the denuclearization of the peninsula, these would be welcomed not only by the Korean people but by the international community as well. (Reflective of the sentiments of the South Koreans is the result of a Korea Research Center poll, done after the North-South summit, showing 78 percent of the respondents expressing trust in Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. Their trust in Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, was 86 percent.)
Such a positive turn would mean that the US must withdraw its military forces from South Korea (authorized under a Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1953), and would therefore be looking elsewhere in the region to redeploy them. Redeploying tens of thousand US troops in the Philippines is a big No under the 1987 Constitution. Would the Duterte government push for amending the Charter to accommodate the US?
Little information has been made public about Balikatan 2018, the 34th version of the series of joint military exercises that began in 2002, in combat areas in Mindanao where the AFP was battling the Abu Sayyaf Group. What the current Balikatan spokesperson, Lt. Liezl Vidallon, said on April 19 was that this year’s joint exercises will focus on “enhancing interoperability” of the US and Philippine armed forces, mutual defense, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and counterterrorism.
“Enhancing interoperability” was the original objective of the Balikatan along with “counterterrorism,” in line with US President George W. Bush’s global “war on terror” initiated through his campaigns of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. Till today, these two wars remain the longest that America has launched, costing trillions of dollars, with no defined timeframe for ending them.
In Balikatan 2016 (April 4-15, under the Aquino III administration), “enhancing interoperability” was replaced by a new purpose: “mission rehearsal,” coined by Lt. Gen. John Toolan, the US wargame director at the time – in the context of the “existing tension” in the SCS/WPS. That exercise involved 5,000 US troops as “trainors/advisers” of 3,500 Filipino soldiers: giving rise to the question, “Who was training whom?”
After Duterte assumed power in July 2016, he vowed to make changes. In September he announced the Philippines would pursue an “independent foreign policy” and initiated a soft diplomatic approach to the SCS/WPS maritime claims dispute. In October, he announced that he would terminate the joint military exercises even while retaining the 1951 US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty. However, he allowed the Balikatan scheduled that month, allegedly to save Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana from embarassment (“Ayaw ko lang mapahiya siya”) as the latter had already committed to carry out the exercises. They involved 1,400 US troops and 500 Filipino soldiers in amphibious landing drills in Palawan and other coastal areas in Luzon.
However, on September 1, 2017 US Defense Secretary James Mattis formally but quietly launched a “contingency operation” to support the Philippine government and the AFP in their efforts “to isolate, degrade, and defeat affiliates of the ISIS and other terrorist organizations in the Philippines.” It was named Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, President Donald Trump’s version of Bush’s 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom. On September 18-26, a “low-key” Balikatan dubbed as Tempest Wind was carried out, with these three consequences: 1) it brought the Duterte government complicitly in closer security/defense alliance with the US; 2) tied down the country once more to the US global “war on terror”; and 3) reincluded the Philippines as a war front of the vicious American war, which has been extending into more and more African and other states not officially at war with the USA.
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Published in Philippine Star
May 5, 2018