Expanding US military presence in Phl bases

Yesterday China’s continuing intrusions into Philippine maritime jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea grabbed the headlines over a new incident that spurred strong protests and varied responses. This paper’s headline read: “China ships use water cannon vs Phl supply boats.”

Two big Chinese Coast Guard ships on Tuesday blocked two small Philippine civilian vessels on their way to transport food supplies to the military personnel stationed on a grounded naval ship (the BRP Sierra Madre) serving as outpost at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. A third Chinese ship blasted the two Filipino vessels with water cannon, forcing them to turn back.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. filed strong diplomatic protests to China’s foreign ministry and to the Chinese embassy in Manila. The Chinese vessels’ actions were illegal, he said: China “has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas…[and] must take heed and back off.” The provision of supplies to the troops in Ayungin Shoal will continue, he emphasized, adding, “We do not need to ask permission to do what we need to do in our territory.”

But China’s foreign ministry spokesperson defended their ships’ actions as being “in accordance with the law,” claiming the Filipino vessels had intruded into China’s waters. Locsin said he reminded China that “a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.” He was referring to former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s public commitment, in March 2019, that any armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would “trigger Article IV of the MDT.” That commitment has since been repeated by high US diplomatic and military officials.

While a number of senators – among them Risa Hontiveros, Francis Pangilinan and Richard Gordon – supported Locsin’s diplomatic protest, they deemed it insufficient and urged stronger actions.

Filing diplomatic protests against China may “no longer be enough,” declared the House of Representatives’ deputy minority leader, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate. He also said that President Duterte must demand justice through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and insist on Chinese compliance with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling nullifying China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea, including the WPS.

At least three presidential candidates in the May 9, 2022 elections have weighed in on the issue, with different suggested actions.

• Senator Panfilo Lacson and his vice presidential running mate, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, called for a stronger government response. Lacson cited the need to forge alliances with “militarily-strong” nations, noting that given its current military capability, the country will not win over China. Sotto urged invoking the relevant provisions of the 1951 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

• Should he become president, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno said he would seek the reinforcement of defense agreements like the MDT and the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999. “Palalawakin ko pa yung sakop nilang pagtetreyningan (joint RP-US military exercises) para mas maraming matetreyn na Pilipinong uniformed personnel,” he said.

• For her part, Vice President Leni Robredo advocated a stronger stance in asserting Philippine sovereignty to protect the interests of Filipinos. “Our victory in the arbitral ruling is what we rely on so that we can continue to protect what is ours,” she added.

Robredo disclosed that she and running mate Sen. Kiko Pangilinan met for three hours last Wednesday with former AFP generals, including two former chiefs of staff, to discuss major aspects of national security. “We are committed to continue our consultation with them,” she stressed.

“The expert views of these generals and respected military strategists are very appreciated,” she said, “as we recognize that with threats both current and evolving, we need an institutional, comprehensive and deliberate approach to national security.”

Secretary Locsin’s invocation of the MDT, the specific references to it by two presidential candidates – and a recent bilateral decision to expand American military presence, US military facilities and war materiel storage inside Philippine military bases as part of the treaty’s implementation — ought to make the Mutual Defense Treaty a top issue in the forthcoming electoral campaign.

Without much noise, Philippine and US diplomatic and defense officials met in Washington DC last week (Nov. 15-16), in what was billed as the 9th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, a biannual meeting that started in 2011.

The two panels discussed cooperation on defense, economics, rule of law and regional diplomacy. They signed a Joint Vision Statement for the 21st Century United States-Philippines Partnership which provides for, among others, the following:

• Besides resuming 300-plus military activities under the VFA in 2022, the Philippines allows the US to construct facilities and preposition defense assets inside Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

While the US already has “facilities” inside four military bases, the two panels say, “We intend to continue implementing infrastructure projects at current EDCA locations and explore additional sites for further development.” The four existing facilities are inside Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Mactan-Benito Air Base in Cebu, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.

• Negotiate an agreement governing the manner of sharing intelligence and proper joint use of equipment during combined military operations or training exercises.

• Promote interoperability of the US and Philippine armed forces, including the establishment of a coordination center, developing a joint command and control of operations, and finishing the maritime “framework” to enable the more effective execution of joint operations.

Looking at all these, one can surmise the rise of probable national security risk should a militarily powerful country deemed as enemy by the US opt to make a preemptive attack on the US facilities inside Philippine bases (a prospect which President Duterte has said he dreads). And with American soldiers practically being present year-round, the old social ills entailed by their previous presence, such as the prostituting of women near the bases, are likely to worsen.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
November 20, 202

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