Philippines keen on stronger US presence
MANILA, Philippines—Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Friday said the Philippines would accept an increased United States military presence in the country 20 years after kicking out the last US military base from its territory, but stressed that this would be in accordance with Philippine law which bans the basing of foreign troops.
Increased military presence could include more and more frequent joint exercises and a greater number of US troops rotating through the country, Del Rosario said in a press statement.
“It is to our definite advantage to be exploring how to maximize our treaty alliance with the United States in ways that would be mutually acceptable and beneficial,” Del Rosario said in a statement.
Del Rosario’s comments expanded on comments by Philippine defense and military officials who confirmed on Thursday a Washington Post report that the US and the Philippines were in talks about expanding bilateral military cooperation as the Philippines grapples with the growing assertiveness of China.
But Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said any agreement would not extend to the permanent basing of US troops.
Gazmin on Friday said an expanded US military presence in the region should raise the Philippines’ capability to deter border intrusions.
“I would rather look at it from the positive point of view, that there would be stability in the region, that we would have enough deterrent,” he told reporters.
“Without a deterrent force, we can be easily pushed around, our territories will be violated. Now that we have a good neighbor on the block, we can no longer be bullied,” he said, referring to the US.
Del Rosario did not specifically mention China as driving the Philippines’ push for a greater US military presence, but highlighted “territorial disputes” in his statement.
He said closer military relations with the US would “complement” the diplomatic approach the country has been taking to the threats it is facing.
“If there could be the possibility of threats to our national interest in terms of, say, territorial disputes, we should be prepared to deal with these issues diplomatically. To complement the diplomatic approach we must at the very least also endeavor to achieve a minimum credible defense posture,” he explained.
As the Philippines’ treaty ally, Del Rosario said the US “has offered to help us.”
Beyond responding to some of the Philippines’ needs in terms of military equipment and training “to compensate for our lack of resources,” he said the Philippines would also want to explore other means of acceptable assistance and cooperation from Washington, such as more joint exercises with the US military and “a rotating and more frequent presence by them.”
“Such cooperative efforts would as well result in achieving a balance of influence to ensure peace, stability and economic development in the region,” he said.
The Philippines has been locked in a decades-long dispute with China over competing claims to territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), but the tensions have escalated during the past year over what the Philippines considers increasing Chinese bullying.
US President Barack Obama last year highlighted a shifting US defense strategy with a greater military focus on Asia, where China’s new assertiveness has rattled Washington’s allies.
Keep China out
In Malacañang, Ricky Carandang, head of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office, on Friday said keeping China out of undisputed Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea was one of the motivations for negotiating an expanded US presence in the country.
According to Carandang, there was a convergence of interests in the Philippines’ need to upgrade its defense capability and the US desire to make its presence felt in the Asia Pacific.
“They (the US) are not just talking to the Philippines. They’re also in discussions with other countries in Asia like Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Australia,” he said.
“What we are trying to do is to enhance our capability to defend our territory,” he said.
“We’re doing this in cooperation not just with the United States but also with Australia and other Asian neighbors … that’s part and parcel of our efforts to enhance our defense capabilities,” Carandang said.
No basing arrangements
Amid an outcry of protest from militants over the expansion of US military presence, Del Rosario stressed that any agreement resulting from the new talks with the US would be “consistent with our treaty obligations and in accordance with Philippine laws and the Constitution.”
The US military buildup would be in accordance with Philippine law, which bans any foreign troops from being permanently based in the country, he and other officials said.
The US and the Philippines signed a mutual defense treaty in 1951 which provides that both countries would support each other if either of them were to be attacked by a third country.
The US had large military bases in the Philippines until 1992, but was forced to abandon them after the Senate voted to kick them out.
In 1999, the two countries also concluded a bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to govern that status of temporarily deployed Filipino and American troops.
Rotating force of 600
A rotating force of about 600 US troops has been stationed in Mindanao for the past decade, training Filipino soldiers in how to fight Islamic extremists.
Carandang also denied that there were any discussions on any form of basing for the US military.
“None of these initiatives involves any kind of basing arrangements similar to what we had prior to 1991 so we’re not bringing back the bases similar to Subic and Clark prior to 1991,” he said, adding that the discussions are still “at an early stage.”
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the government would be open to an agreement “for as long as no basing rights are granted and the arrangement for their presence falls within the (Visiting Forces Agreement) framework.”
Gazmin also said the Philippines is considering a US proposal to deploy surveillance aircraft on a temporary, rotating basis to enhance its ability to guard disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea.
He said the ongoing discussions in Washington on the expansion of military cooperation include plans to deploy more littoral combat ships and spy aircraft, said Gazmin.
A Philippine military source told Reuters the head of the US Pacific Command had proposed last August the deployment of P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft. More talks are due in Washington in March. With a report from Gil C. Cabacungan