Strong ties, loose ends in Philippine-US pact
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Amid intensifying territorial disputes in the Western Pacific, US President Barack Obama embarked on a crucial tour where he sought to reassure allies in North and Southeast Asia that Washington is fully committed to the region's stability and prosperity. A new security pact signed with the Philippines will go some way in delivering the message that China's rising assertiveness will not go unchecked.
Ahead of Obama's visit to Manila, the Philippines risked full-blown confrontation with China by filing a formal complaint on March 30 before a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague over their
territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing vehemently opposed the move as a provocation that unnecessarily "internationalizes" an essentially bilateral dispute.
At the same time, Filipino officials expedited their negotiations with the US for a new security pact, known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Formally signed during Obama's visit, the EDCA will give US armed forces wider rotational access to Philippine military bases, including Subic and Clark, and allow for the positioning and storing of US military equipment on Philippine soil.
Both Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino insisted the new security pact was not designed to contain China, focusing instead on the deal's humanitarian and disaster relief potential. But the two sides had before the signing already intensified their military cooperation vis-?-vis Beijing, as Chinese Coast Guard vessels and Filipino troops wrestled over the resupply of a Philippine maritime detachment on the contested Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
Confronting a Chinese siege on the stationed Filipino troops, Philippine Navy forces were weeks ahead of Obama's visit able to temporarily circumvent the Chinese blockade thanks to aerial support from the US Navy's P-8 Poseidon aircrafts, according to Filipino officials.
"We know that they [US Navy] assisted the Philippine Navy in being able to evade the Chinese ships ... I think it was the strategy that was discussed," said Philippine Ambassador to US Jose Cuisia Jr in early April, underscoring the importance of US military support to the Philippines' territorial integrity. "I don't specifically know the details and they will not discuss that. When you tell, then China will know what to look for the next time around."
"Had the US Navy planes not made low passes ... the China Coast Guard could have been more aggressive in blocking you [Philippine Navy], and kept you from getting to the [Second Thomas Shoal]," another source who was briefed on the latest operational military plans but wasn't authorized to publicly divulge the details told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The EDCA calls for expanded Philippine-US joint military exercises and aid, with the ultimate aim of enhancing defense interoperability between the two countries, both in the realm of traditional and non-traditional security areas. Filipino officials hailed the new deal as a concrete reflection of strengthening Philippine-US defense cooperation, further strengthening a long-standing alliance amid rising security challenges in the region.
"This agreement, concluded after intensive and comprehensive negotiations over the course of nearly two years, marks a milestone in our shared history as enduring treaty allies," said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, a strong proponent of Obama's "pivot" policy towards Asia who has tirelessly sought greater defense and diplomatic support from Washington in recent years. "With the EDCA, the Philippines and the United States as sovereign allies have written a new chapter for our modern and mature partnership, firmly grounded on deeply held democratic values, common interests and shared aspirations."
Critics of the new pact argue it lacks sufficient transparency, may violate Philippine constitutional restrictions on foreign military bases, and disproportionately benefits the US by granting it inexpensive access to foreign bases in exchange for apparently limited military aid.
With the signing of the EDCA, "[The US] could claim that it has contained China because the Asian countries involved, including the Philippines, are now bound by their respective agreements with America," Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the chairman of the Philippines Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, reflecting her long-standing opposition to existing and proposed Philippine-US defense agreements.
While Santiago criticized the "marginal advantages" of the EDCA for the Philippines, other influential figures such as former Senator Joker Arroyo echoed her reservations on the questionable constitutionality of the new pact. "We rushed to sign the EDCA as a gift to President Obama ... No one, but no one, was consulted about its constitutionality or participated in its preparation," said Arroyo, who in 1991 was among the nationalist legislators that called for the abrogation of US military bases in the Philippines. "What did the Philippines get out of the Obama visit? Zero. Analyze it."
Many leading legal experts argue that the new security pact should have been subjected to Senate ratification, ensuring more comprehensive deliberation on the legality and strategic implications of the deal. The Philippine government, however, is yet to release the full details of the EDCA.
There is a lingering feeling among many Filipinos, especially the intelligentsia and progressive circles, that the new deal represents a huge step back from the independence asserted in the immediate aftermath of the post-Cold War, when the Philippines sought to chart its own destiny by building indigenous military capabilities.
But a combination of chronic corruption, a continued focus on fighting domestic insurgency in Muslim areas of Mindanao and communist-dominated rural areas, and a lack of strategic vision has undermined the Philippines' ability to effectively modernize its armed forces, which is among the weakest in the region.
Despite having one of the world's longest coastlines, the Philippines has a relatively small navy and coast guard, but a disproportionately large army, which has been embroiled in domestic security operations. Without a minimum deterrence capability, the Philippines has had little choice but to rely on external defense assistance, especially from the US.
From domestic insurgency to humanitarian disasters, the US has been a major source of assistance in recent decades, despite relinquishing its major bases in the Philippines in 1992. Surveys have consistently suggested that the majority of Filipinos have a high approval rating of the US. According to the latest local Social Weather Stations survey conducted between March 27-30, 85% of Filipinos indicated "high trust" in the US as a reliable partner for the Philippines.
Fearful of a rising China, most Filipinos hope that the US would come to the country's rescue in an event of a conflict in the South China Sea. Predictably, that was the central topic during Obama's press conference in Manila, where reporters consistently pushed Washington to clarify the extent of its support for the Philippines' territorial claims against China under the two countries' 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
In his earlier trip to Tokyo, Obama made it clear that the US military was obliged to stand by Japan if a conflict were to erupt with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. "Let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute. And Article 5 [of the treaty] covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands," Obama stated. With assured US military support, Japan is now in a strong position to negotiate a de-escalation and diplomatic compromise of its dispute with China in the East China Sea.
During his visit to the Philippines, despite the signing of the EDCA, Obama was not as overt about the US's obligations in the South China Sea. While restating Washington's commitment to freedom of navigation in the maritime area, he also sought to reassure China that the new EDCA was not directed against it, saying "it's inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in this region." Some analysts interpreted the comment as encouragement for Manila to seek a diplomatic compromise for the South China Sea disputes.
"[The 1951 MDT] means our two nations pledge, and I am quoting, 'our common determination to defend themselves from external armed attacks'," Obama said before a gathering of Philippine Armed Forces, falling short of offering a direct guarantee of American military support if a conflict were to erupt between Manila and Beijing in the South Chin Sea. "And no potential aggressor can be under the illusion that either of them stands alone. In other words, our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad. The United States will keep that commitment because allies will never stand alone."
Experts claim that Obama's ambivalence stems from the fact that the Philippine-US MDT, in contrast to the Japan-US MDT, is partly vague on mutual defense obligations regarding disputed territories in the South China Sea. Moreover, while Japan has been able to demonstrate its continuous and effective exercise of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the Philippines' has fallen short of consolidating its claims to many disputed features in the South China Sea.
"With Obama reassuring the US's allies of protection in any conflict with China, it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China's influence in the region," China's leading state-run newspaper, China Daily, stated in an editorial, criticizing Obama's trip as a thinly veiled attempt to encircle Beijing. "For a considerably long period, Chinese have cherished the naive thought that Washington will rein in its unruly allies when they go too far. Obama's current trip should be a wake-up call that this is just wishful thinking."
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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