Malacañang on Friday defended a plan to give the United States, Japan and other allies access to military bases in the Philippines, saying the country was free to do anything within its territory.
But the plan, which coincides with the United States’ “pivot” to Asia, a strategy that would see 60 percent of America’s warships shifting to the region by the end of the decade, has yet to be approved by President Benigno Aquino III, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.
Several senators acknowledged that the Philippines needs the assistance the United States and other allies can bring by their presence in the country, but they said the proposed access agreements under the plan would need Senate approval.
The Senate voted to expel US military bases from the Philippines in 1991, but ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1999 to allow US forces access to the country through joint exercises with Philippine forces.
No longer visiting
Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the 12 senators who voted to expel the US military bases, said the VFA allowed only a temporary stay of US forces in the country.
“They cannot establish any military base in the Philippines,” Enrile said.
“Temporary or whatever term they use, no military bases. If it assumes a certain degree of permanence or stability, then it’s no longer visiting forces,” he added.
Enrile said that when the Senate ratified the VFA in 1999, “what we agreed upon is a rule [under which] American soldiers [will stay in] the Philippines only temporarily.”
But if the access plan would allow them to stay in the Philippines for an unlimited period, “[t]hat would be an issue before the Supreme Court,” Enrile said.
“As visiting forces, they can come and refuel. But if they will put down their fuel here and all their ammunition dumps and all their armaments and whatever equipment they would need for war, [that may] come [within] the prohibition in the Constitution,” he said.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Thursday that the Philippines will not build new air and naval bases, but simply allow the United States, Japan and other allies access to its military bases under the plan to roll back China’s expansive claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The 1987 Constitution prohibits foreign military bases in the country.
Valte said at a press briefing in the Palace yesterday that the plan was designed to put into operation the agreement between the Philippines and the United States to increase visits of US troops and warships to the Philippines as part of the US rebalancing strategy.
China is in our garage
The plan should not be a cause of concern for other countries, she said.
“Whatever we do within our territory… is perfectly within our rights,” Valte told reporters.
Defending the plan from criticism yesterday, Gazmin said the Philippines needed allies like the United States to help defend its territory and sovereignty against an “oppressive neighbor.”
“We cannot stand alone. We need allies,” Gazmin said.
“If we do not (seek allies), we will be bullied by bigger forces and that is what is happening now. China is already there, staying in our territory.”
Gazmin was referring to the presence of Chinese ships at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea west of Zambales province, and near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), in another part of the sea west of Palawan Island and also within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“What will we do? We cannot attack. We are just going after them in court. But in spite of that, they are still there. They do not want to leave,” he said.
“So what will we do? Should we just wait until they are at our very doorstep? They are already in our garage, right?” Gazmin said.
Two Plus Two meet
Gazmin explained that the plan for an access agreement being prepared by his department was a result of last year’s “Two Plus Two” meeting between him and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and then US State Secretary Hillary Clinton.
The meeting took place as the Philippines was locked in a tense maritime standoff with China at Panatag Shoal.
Gazmin said the increased rotational presence of US forces in the Philippines was discussed during that meeting.
“This means that with more participants in our exercises, they will need access (to the bases) for their equipment,” he said.
Under the arrangement, he said, the United States would be able to park in the Philippines planes it would use in the military exercises to save on turnaround time and fuel instead of flying them to and from US bases in Guam, Hawaii, or Okinawa in Japan.
The United States would also be allowed to bring new military equipment for the exercises if and when given access to Philippine bases, Gazmin said.
Such an arrangement would expose the Philippine military to advanced US military technology, such as the P-3 Orion spy plane, he said.
“We don’t have that. If they refuel their new jets here, we can be given the chance to study or see that kind of new technology,” he said.
Gazmin gave the assurance that the presence of US forces and their equipment in Philippine military bases will be temporary.
“They will stay only for the duration of the exercise,” he said.
The defense department’s lawyers are discussing the preparation of the access agreement, including the language, Gazmin said.
“We may find out that it is already part of the Visiting Forces Agreement. So it is undergoing careful study by our lawyers,” he said, adding there was no time frame for the completion of the draft.
He said the access agreement would be submitted to the Senate if it turned out to be “an agreement beyond” the VFA.
Gazmin said the former US naval base in Subic, Zambales province, was among the bases being considered to be covered by the access agreement.
Also being considered, he said, is the Lumbia airport in Cagayan de Oro if the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) would allow its use by the defense establishment.
Gazmin said Japan was welcome to have joint military exercises with the Philippines. But Japanese troops cannot step on Philippine soil without a visiting forces agreement between the two countries, he said.
Sen. Loren Legarda, head of the Senate committee on foreign relations, said allowing US forces access to Philippine military bases may be allowed, “but strictly under the purview of the VFA.”
“The VFA will continue to be enforced to ensure that US military presence remains within the bounds of the VFA framework,” Legarda said.
“The same is true with other countries [with which] we have existing Status of Visiting Forces Agreements ratified by the Senate,” she said.
As to whether the access agreements with the United States and other Philippine allies should be ratified by the Senate, Legarda said: “As it is, there are joint exercises and initiatives and to a certain access to our facilities allowed but according to well-defined terms. Under this scenario, there is no need for Senate approval.”
Reacting to news reports about the Philippine plan on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the strategy was a “path of confrontation” and it would be “doomed.”
Wang said countries that “try to reinforce their poorly grounded claims (in the West Philippine Sea) through the help of external forces” would find the strategy a “miscalculation not worth the effort.”
In the face of Beijing’s growing military might, Washington last year decided to “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region and deploy 60 percent of the Navy’s fleet to the Pacific by 2020.
The Obama administration has helped the Philippines upgrade its military, but so far has given the country only two secondhand cutters.
The Philippines and China remain in a standoff at Panatag Shoal, with Chinese ships occupying the shoal and the Philippines taking the dispute to the United Nations for arbitration.