MANILA, Philippines—The opening round of talks between the Philippines and the United States for an agreement on increased US military presence in the country took almost six hours on Wednesday, but details of what was discussed would not be revealed until Thursday, officials said.
The talks, which began shortly before 9:30 a.m. and ended at 3:30 p.m., were held at the Edsa Room of the Department of National Defense (DND) building at Camp Aguinaldo, which had been used by former President Fidel Ramos, the then head of the Philippine Constabulary, and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, the then defense secretary, during the crucial four days of the first People Power Revolution of 1986.
Defense undersecretary Honorio Azcueta stressed the significance of the venue when he welcomed the US and Philippine panels.
“Now we begin our negotiations in the same room with the need in view of coming out with a framework that will further enhance our existing robust defense relations. I exhort both panels to remain candid and frank so that the outcome of this undertaking will redound to the best interest of our two countries,” he said.
The Philippine panel is headed by Carlos Sorreta, assistant secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs, with members defense undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, justice undersecretary Francisco Baraan III and defense assistant secretary Raymund Quilop.
Round by round
The US panel is composed of State Department officials Eric John, ambassador and senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements of political-military affairs, and Elizabeth Jones, attorney advisor; Brig. Gen. Joaquin Malavet, of the US Defense Department; and Captain Greg Bart, deputy legal counsel, Office of the Chairmen of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Sorreta said “details of each round of talks will be revealed to the public through media in the spirit of transparency.”
The public will be given an update on what was discussed on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Commissioned Officers Club (AFPCOC) in Camp Aguinaldo.
Malacañang said Wednesday the Aquino administration was dead-set on coming up with the agreement despite concerns it might be a violation of Philippine sovereignty.
“Does it stop us? No. We are going ahead with the discussions on the framework agreement,” said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, reacting to a warning from Akbayan party-list member Walden Bello that they could be impinging on the country’s sovereignty.
Lacierda said Philippine negotiators would work within the parameters of the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
In a statement released by the DND, Sorreta said the Philippine panel was going to the negotiating table “guided by the Constitution, utmost respect for sovereignty, and mutuality of benefits in any approved activity and deployment of equipment.”
“We would like to assure the Filipino people that your government is committed to defending and protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he added.
The plan for an increased “rotational presence” of US military troops is widely viewed as a deterrent to China’s increasingly aggressive stance in laying claim to almost the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
It also comes at a time of the US’s rebalancing of its military forces in the Asia Pacific region in the face of increasing Chinese aggression.
No working title
Still without a working title, the agreement “will further implement the terms and conditions of the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement pertaining to temporary presence of US forces in specific facilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and will thresh out the details of the agreed policy on IRP (increased rotational presence),” the DND said.
It will be different from the Balikatan exercises which are limited to joint war games between Philippine and US forces.
Sources said the new agreement would likely contain provisions on the use of US equipment by the Philippine military in situations in which these would be needed.—With TJ Burgonio and Norman Bordadora