PH, US to sign access pact Monday

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US President Barack Obama arrives in Manila Monday for a two-day state visit. AP

MANILA, Philippines—Washington and Manila have reached a 10-year pact that would allow a larger US military presence in the Philippines as it grapples with increasingly tense territorial disputes with China, according to two Philippine officials and a confidential government primer seen by The Associated Press on Sunday.

The Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation, which would give American forces temporary access to selected military camps and allow them to preposition fighter jets and ships, is due to be signed Monday at the Department of Defense, shortly before the arrival of US President Barack Obama, the officials said. Obama’s two-day visit is the last leg of a four-country Asian tour that also took him to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

The two officials spoke with AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details of the pact ahead of its signing.

“Yes, you can say we got what we wanted,” a ranking government official told the Inquirer. “After 10 years, the agreement may be renewed or not renewed,” said the source who likewise requested anonymity. The term of the agreement was one of the contentious points of the deal, the source said.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg are to sign the agreement at 10 a.m., just a few hours before Obama arrives in the country.

A Philippine government primer on the defense accord did not indicate how many additional US troops would be deployed “on temporary and rotational basis,” but it said the number would depend on the scale of joint military activities to be held in Philippine camps.

‘Military occupation’

Militants slammed the agreement, saying it “ushers a new period of military occupation.”

“We condemn in the strongest terms the brazen treachery of the Aquino regime which is set to sign tomorrow the US-PH Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, just before the arrival of US president Obama,” said Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes in a text message on Sunday.

A nationwide protest is set against the defense pact and Obama’s visit in the country.

He said the deal is an “obvious gift of a puppet president to his imperialist master.”

“Aquino now gains the distinction of reversing the gains from the rejection of US bases in 1991. He ushers a new period of US military occupation, underscoring our country’s status as a neo-colony. We will fight this new foreign imposition,” Reyes also said.

Hundreds of American military personnel have already been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to provide counterterrorism training and as advisers to Filipino soldiers who have been battling Muslim militants for decades.

The Philippine Constitution bars permanent US military bases. Under the agreement, a Filipino base commander would have access to entire areas to be shared with American forces, according to the primer.

Disagreements over Philippine access to designated US areas within local camps had hampered the negotiations for the agreement last year.

Better coordination

The agreement would promote better coordination between US and Filipino forces, boost the 120,000-strong Philippine military’s capability to monitor and secure the country’s territory, and respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.

“Prepositioned materiel will allow for timely responses in the event of disasters—natural or otherwise,” the primer said.

The presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former American colony.

The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close down major US bases at Subic and Clark. However, in 1999, it ratified a pact with the United States allowing temporary visits by American forces. That paved the way for hundreds of US forces to hold counterterrorism combat exercises with Filipino troops dealing with insurgents in the country’s south.

This time, the focus of the Philippines and its underfunded military has increasingly turned to external threats, as territorial spats with China in the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) have heated up in recent years. The Philippines has turned to Washington, its longtime defense treaty ally, for help to modernize its Navy and Air Force, among Asia’s weakest.

Chinese paramilitary ships took effective control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), a rich fishing ground off the northwestern Philippines, in 2012. Last year, Chinese coast guard ships were deployed to another contested offshore West Philippine Sea territory, Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), where they have been trying to block food supplies and rotation of Filipino marines aboard a grounded Philippine Navy ship in the shallow waters of the remote coral outcrops.

Pivot to Asia

The Philippines’ desire to bolster its territorial defense has dovetailed with Washington’s intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, partly as a counterweight to China’s rising clout.

Such convergence would work to deter China’s increasingly assertive stance in disputed territories but the question that begs to be answered remains whether Washington would come to the rescue of Manila if its territorial claims over part of the West Philippine Sea escalate into an armed conflict with Beijing.

Obama is to arrive at 1:30 p.m. Monday. Hounding him throughout his trip to Asia is the question on how he would reassure allies of Washington’s support amid China’s expansionism and growing military and economic influence in the region.

It’s the same question that will confront him when he and President Aquino face the media in a joint press conference in Malacañang at 3:25 p.m.

Prior to facing reporters, Obama and Aquino will sit down for an expanded bilateral meeting.

“President Aquino will convey the country’s vision for an enduring and strategic Philippine-US partnership that will be characterized by modern, mature and forward-looking bilateral relations,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said in a radio interview.

He said this would center on “three major fronts: strengthening political and security cooperation, expanding trade and investments, tourism and development cooperation, and deepening people-to-people ties.”

Mutual defense pact

Coloma did not say exactly how the new defense agreement with the United States would help the Philippines in its territorial conflict with China. “Our view is that our good coordination with them will continue and so will their commitment to be one with our country in the aspect of national defense based on the existing treaty,” he said.

Coloma was referring to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which the Palace considers the foundation of the new defense agreement with Washington.

Article 5 of the treaty states that “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

“In guarding the West Philippine Sea and our exclusive economic zone, we have to do it on our own,” defense analyst Antonio Custodio told the Inquirer. “We should not expect a blank check from the United States,” he said, pointing to the standoff at Scarborough Shoal in 2012. “We lost Scarborough Shoal to China. Where was the United States?”—With reports from AP, Christian V. Esguerra and Nikko Dizon of PDI, and Frances Mangosing of INQUIRER.net

Originally posted: 2:28 pm | Sunday, April 27th, 2014

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