Page 1 of 2 New ties, new risks in the South China Sea
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - After nearly a year of intense bilateral negotiations, the Philippines and United States have overcome previous stumbling blocks and reached a "consensus" on the contours of a new defense pact. Formal finalization of the deal is expected to coincide with US President Barack Obama's scheduled official visit to the Philippines in late April.
After a series of failed diplomatic overtures towards China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has now placed strategic hope in revitalized and bolstered military ties with the US, a move
aimed in part at counterbalancing China's rising assertiveness over contested territories in the South China Sea.
Alarmed by China's recent reported incursions into Philippine-controlled maritime territories, including this month's blockade of Philippine ships from accessing the Second Thomas Shoal, Aquino recently recalibrated his government's negotiating position to allow for a stronger, more permanent US presence on Philippine soil.
Since 2002, as part of Washington's so-called global "war on terror", approximately 500 American troops from the US's Special Operations Command Pacific have been stationed on a rotational basis on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
US troops have provided logistical, technical, and, according to certain reports, combat assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their fight against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf insurgent group and other extremist groups with bases in the southern Philippines.
Signaling a more external orientation, the Philippines recently revised the title of the proposed new bilateral defense pact from an agreement on an "Increased Rotational Presence" to one known as "Enhanced Defense Cooperation" (AEDC). While recent Philippine-US military cooperation has focused on domestic threats, the new pact's unspoken aim will be to enhance Manila's deterrent capacities vis-a-vis China in contested maritime areas.
According to an exclusive report by the local Manila Bulletin, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in late February sacked one of the top members of the Philippine negotiating panel, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos King Soreta. The cause: his apparent insistence on clear-cut clarification of provisions on the control over and access to temporary US facilities to be established within Philippine military camps under the new agreement.
Disagreement over those provisions bogged down the first four rounds of the negotiations. Soreta - who reportedly had heated discussions with his superiors and formerly headed the American Affairs division of the DFA - was demoted to overseeing the Foreign Service Institute. Once Soreta was sidelined the negotiations accelerated, according to sources familiar with the situation.
By mid-March, Filipino officials declared that prior concerns over access to military facilities were "sufficiently addressed" and that a round of talks in late March will iron out final details. Philippine Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino recently said it was "safe to say there is already consensus" on the issue of how Philippine and US troops will share military facilities. Philippine officials have also said that both sides have agreed that any US-built military facilities would be for joint use, and that there will be no exclusively US-controlled areas within Philippine bases.
There have been no verified reports of the exact details of the facilities to be built by the US under the pact, nor has Manila indicated the precise nature of the assistance it seeks from Washington. Strategic analysts contend that the Philippines is pushing hard for leasing advanced American naval hardware geared towards countering, among other things, Chinese paramilitary vessels now patrolling contested features in the South China Sea.
According to the Philippine Department of National Defense, "The proposed agreement will allow the sharing of defined areas within certain AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] facilities with elements of the US military on a rotational basis within parameters consistent with the Philippine Constitution and laws."
Tempering expectations of a rapid deployment of American troops on Philippine soil and naval assets in contested waters, Batino said that the ongoing negotiations were still "very fluid and we [Philippine government and their US counterparts] cannot have a definitive time line when we will finish this". US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, meanwhile, has committed to "conclude the agreement as soon as we can", saying that both sides still need to work out "some details".
The Philippine government's perceived ambivalence towards certain sovereignty-related details of the agreement has raised hackles in certain nationalistic quarters. A number of prominent legislators have voiced their concerns about the "legality" of the proposed pact given constitutional restrictions on the establishment of permanent foreign military bases on Philippine soil.
Aquino's administration has insisted that the pact under negotiation falls within already existing treaties between the Philippines and the US, specifically the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 1997 Visiting Forces Agreement, and thus there is no need for Senate ratification of the proposed AEDC. Leading legislators have countered that the proposed pact requires legislative oversight and separate approval to ensure it is consistent with Philippine laws and national interests.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, one of the country's most respected public figures, has been a major critic of the proposed agreement, arguing that allowing foreign troops and hardware on Philippine soil "is a major subject in itself" which does "not [constitute] a minor case of detail" that supposedly falls under the provisions of prior bilateral treaties, as the Aquino administration has maintained.
News reports suggest that the US is also looking beyond an executive agreement, which Washington apparently fears could be reversed upon the expiration of Aquino's term and election of a new president in 2016. Local analysts contend that the next Philippine government, potentially headed by a pragmatist like incumbent Vice President Jejomar Binay, will look to recalibrate Manila's position vis-?-vis China to avoid conflict and maximize bilateral economic ties.
The Philippines and US have apparently yet to agree on exactly what kind of military hardware, surveillance equipment and naval assets will be shared with Filipino troops to defend Manila's claims in the South China Sea. Invoking the two sides' 1951 mutual defense treaty, Manila has sought concrete US military and strategic support to counter Chinese maritime assertiveness.