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Volume 2, Number 43               December 1 - 7, 2002            Quezon City, Philippines

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MLSA: Laying the Bricks of a Bigger Strategy

Howls of protest greeted the secret signing of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) more than a week ago and these will not die down despite belated assurances by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. The agreement was the latest chip of a bigger security template which the U.S. military has envisioned for the Philippines and in Southeast Asia as a whole. The secrecy attending its signing only signifies more pacts could be in the works.

By Bobby Tuazon

Signed more than a week ago between a mid-level U.S. military officer and a Filipino admiral, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA or RP-US-01) is the latest device imposed by the U.S. government in its long-term military re-entry in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia. This agreement has nothing to do at all in George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” as it traces its roots in an aggressive security agenda that Pentagon crafted as soon as U.S. military bases were dismantled in the Philippines in 1992. The agenda included discrete talks to forge access and servicing agreements with the Manila government in a bid to reestablish military facilities.

Blocked by widespread opposition from militant groups, these secret efforts were stalled until President Fidel V. Ramos, through his foreign secretary, signed in 1998 a hastily-drafted “executive pact,” the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) invoking the provisions of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. His successor, Joseph Estrada, had the Senate ratify the agreement even if no reciprocal action came from the U.S. Senate.

Incidentally, like all other past unequal treaties and against protocol requirements, the VFA was signed by the Philippine foreign secretary (Domingo Siazon) and a mere U.S. ambassador. While the pact clearly was in violation of the Constitution, it was President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who extended military privileges for the Americans outside the parameters set by the VFA. She acceded to U.S. demands for an increase in the number, length and areas covered by bilateral and multilateral war exercises, opening air and sea space to U.S. military operations and now, the MLSA.

The MLSA is a five-year agreement that was actually consolidated during a meeting between Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and his counterpart, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Pentagon last August. The meeting also led to an agreement about the formation of a mutual defense board that would oversee the conduct of war exercises and the MLSA.

Last week’s signing was therefore only ceremonial and the secrecy attending it was meant to pre-empt anticipated opposition and acrimonious debates in Congress. But it was also a clear act of mendicancy when, despite the fact that the Bush administration had reduced military aid even before such commitment could materialize as a signal for Macapagal-Arroyo not to ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty, the administration still opted to sign the MLSA.

Militarist stance

This latest agreement has been variously criticized as being unconstitutional, as a slap on the Senate’s role to ratify treaties and therefore an act of treason committed by Macapagal-Arroyo. In its latest militarist act, the defense department breached constitutional protocol when it negotiated directly and secretly and signed the MLSA – an authority that is clearly reserved to the country’s diplomats. The agreement’s negotiation was apparently begun away from the scrutiny of the foreign affairs department at the time when it was headed by Vice President Teofisto Guingona. As expected, Guingona, who had long opposed U.S. military presence in the country, has been very out-spoken against the MLSA.

The MLSA has also been denounced as a support for increased and prolonged U.S. armed interventionism in the Philippines. Although the document says that “No United States military base, facility, or permanent structure” shall be allowed, it would allow the entry, pre-positioning and storage of U.S. weapons, vehicles and other military structures using the façade of logistics support for exercises, operations and other deployments. Because the war exercises – which have actually included U.S. combat missions in violation of the VFA itself – will be frequent, continuing and longer and would increase over the next several years, the use of logistics would amount to maintaining permanent military facilities in the country.

This strategy, defined in the U.S. military’s “Joint Vision 2020” and other security policies, appears much better compared to re-establishing and maintaining a military base. Although much preferred, rebuilding and maintaining a military base is costly and, faced with a deep financial crunch, the Philippine government is not expected to share the maintenance cost. The upsurge in anti-imperialist militancy would place a foreign military base vulnerable to constant opposition and possibly – if Pentagon policy-makers are to believe – to “terrorist attacks” by extremist groups.

On the other hand, joint war exercises backed by access, logistics and service agreements, the VFA and MDP appear to be more advantageous to the Americans. Aside from avoiding clear constitutional restrictions (which will work against fixed military facilities), the present VFA, frequent and rotational war exercises, MLSA and other unilateral commitments made by the Philippine government extend U.S. armed operations to any part of the Philippine archipelago. The presence of U.S. armed troops in any part of the country is the most effective way of keeping the local government compliant, in training and maintaining a surrogate army (the Armed Forces of the Philippines) and broadening military targets cum covert operations from perceived Islamic “terrorism” to the Marxist revolutionary movement.

Surrogate army

It will also make, through the process of the MLSA which was signed partly in exchange for U.S. support to the AFP modernization, the country more dependent on U.S. military aid and training. This in turn would make the AFP to become more and more America’s surrogate army that it can manipulate to suppress the local revolutionary movement as well as fight its proxy wars in the region. The AFP will continue to maintain its traditional role as a power broker in the country whenever a change in government threatens U.S. economic and security interests in the Philippines and, subsequently, in the whole region.

As before, U.S. current military program in the Philippines should be seen as part of a bigger strategy in Southeast Asia that seeks to secure and enhance America’s economic and geopolitical objectives. As described in Pentagon’s “Joint Vision 2020” and other secret policy papers, Southeast Asia – and the whole of Asia – is a priority for U.S. global strategy and America’s “military re-entry” in this region will be enhanced within the next decades.

Hence, over the past few years, security alliances have been tightened with the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Access and basing arrangements have also been forged with - aside from the Philippines and Thailand – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

Singapore which, together with the Philippines, is America’s priority area has opened its Changi Naval Station to U.S. naval combatants and its pier to accommodate U.S. aircraft carriers. Thailand remains an important refueling and transit point for U.S. operations to neighboring trouble spots, including the Arabian Gulf. Australia has long provided key access to facilities for U.S. exercises and intelligence gathering.

In so many countries in the region, joint bilateral and multilateral war exercises are ongoing while budgets for the International Military Education and Training (IMET), Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and other strategic military and police training programs have been increased. ASEAN, which was originally envisioned as an economic cooperation group, is being reconfigured to fit America’s security goals in the region – as a regional security force.

Diverse and flexible

The expansion of U.S. security arrangements in as many countries as possible would avoid dependency on one single country. The maintenance of diverse and flexible military system in the region augments America’s strong military presence in the Far East particularly in Japan, Taiwan and Korean Peninsula where the U.S. Pacific Command has long maintained fixed military facilities with some 150,000 troops on the ground and afloat to boot.

To achieve its security goals, the United States increasingly plays up terrorism, the growing menace of its “peer competitor” (China), drugs, piracy and other so-called threats. In the case of the Philippines, the U.S. government has committed to support the counter-insurgency campaign in an all-sided way as well as its claim over the Spratlys and the AFP modernization. And, as Sen. Edgardo Angara hinted recently, such support would unavoidably involve a role in the coming presidential derby. But then, before the 2004 elections are held, more insidious and onerous security agreements will be forged. Bulatlat.com

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