MANILA, Philippines—“Our region needs to know that we are steadfastly for peace but that we stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance [and] to do what is necessary to defend what is ours,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Monday.
Del Rosario made the statement on the eve of the formal negotiations between the United States and the Philippines to increase rotational presence of American forces in the country, widely viewed as a deterrent to China’s territorial aggression in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin jointly announced at Camp Aguinaldo the start of the formal talks at a news conference.
“At the front line of ensuring the security of our people and the territorial integrity of our nation is the profound partnership between diplomacy and defense. We have to strengthen both if we are to secure our people and our nation,” Del Rosario said.
He said “diplomacy and defense will once again intersect to secure our nation—this week we start the negotiations with the United States to institutionalize this policy through a framework agreement.”
The policy that Del Rosario referred to was the result of the Two-Plus-Two Consultations in 2012 between him and Gazmin, and their US counterparts, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The Philippines and China have been locked in a territorial dispute over some islands in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines haled China to a United Nations arbitration court after it sent navy frigates to the Ayungin Shoal in May.
In June, Gazmin said the Philippine government was considering allowing the United States and other allies access to existing military bases amid China’s increasing belligerence.
Last year, China took control of the Scarborough Shoal off Zambales province, which the Philippines says falls within its 322-kilometer (200-mile) exclusive economic zone. China also has demanded that the Philippines pull out of another shoal farther south, near Mischief Reef, which Chinese troops occupied in 1995 amid Manila’s protests.
Manila’s desire to bolster its external defense and security has dovetailed with Washington’s intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, where it has been fostering closer economic and military alliances with countries such as the Philippines, partly as a counterweight to China’s rising clout.
The realignment of American forces in the Asia-Pacific also involves the deployment of up to 2,500 US Marines in northern Australia and the stationing of US combat vessels in Singapore.
The Philippine negotiating panel consists of Assistant Foreign Secretary Carlos Sorreta, Assistant Defense Secretary Raymund Jose Quilop, Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino and Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III.
The US panel will be led by Eric John, a former US ambassador to Thailand. John is a senior negotiator for military agreements of the Department of State.
The first round of negotiations will be held at the Department of National Defense (DND) in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
Gazmin said the modalities for the increased rotational presence of US troops would include “high-value and high-impact exercises … which help develop the capability of both armed forces.”
The negotiations for the framework agreement will be “guided by the principles of strict compliance with the Philippine Constitution, laws and jurisprudence; Philippine sovereignty; nonpermanence of US troops in Philippine territory; nonexclusivity of use of facilities by the US side; and mutuality of benefits,” the defense secretary said.
The Office of the President issued a written authority and parameters for the negotiations, based on the recommendations of Del Rosario and Gazmin, Sorreta said.
“Activities under this proposed agreement will be covered by our Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The legal basis for increased rotational presence exists in these two agreements. What we will be negotiating will be modalities and the kinds of activities,” Sorreta said.
The officials said the negotiations would be transparent, saying media and members of Congress would be briefed after every round.
“We are going to make ourselves reasonably available to media throughout the negotiations. We do ask for your patience and understanding though,” Sorreta said.
“As negotiators, there will be some details that we will have to keep to ourselves momentarily. We will be transparent, but we will not be negotiating through media. In this manner, we hope to maximize our negotiating positions,” he explained.
Sorreta said there could be a minimum of four rounds of negotiations but he would not give a specific time frame, saying every round of negotiation would depend on the last.
The panel did not give a direct answer when asked about the current security assessment on China’s pressing claims of parts of the Philippine territory.
Separate from VFA
But Batino said “all the activities of the DND and the AFP modernization program to attain a minimum credible defense posture and including the forthcoming talks with the US… is to address that concern.”
He said these efforts were meant to “enable the AFP to be able to protect the territory and sovereignty of the country [against all threats].”
The panel, however, appeared quite hard-pressed in explaining to the media why there was a need for a separate framework agreement for this new policy when the VFA was already in place.
Batino said having agreements such as the one to be negotiated by the two countries “build greater momentum to the strengthening of their relationship.
“In this case, both countries would want a strengthening of the alliance … It is a position of the [defense] department that a stronger alliance with the US creates a stronger defense posture for the Philippines,” he said.
Suffice it to say, “there are activities that we can do [and] there are activities that are done better with this agreement,” Sorreta said.
He also said the agreement would not be a basing agreement, contrary to what critics say.
Sorreta said the agreement would likely be between the defense departments of the Philippines and the United States, with the “representatives of those departments” as signatories.
“That’s what we’re working on right now. I caution you that these things that we say now will develop and we will be able to give you more details as it goes on. For example, we will have a working title of the agreement. It’s still difficult to discuss it. It is a negotiation. There is nothing final until the last round,” Sorreta said.—With reports from TJ Burgonio, Cathy Yamsuan and AP