US military presence in the Philippines under fire from various quarters

Nuns lead march against US troops in the Philippines

Asia Times, October 19, 2010

Filipinos aim to give US army the boot

Al Labita

MANILA – Some 3,000 United States Marines are currently in the Philippines for joint training exercises with their Filipino counterparts amid mounting opposition calls to scrap a controversial bilateral military pact.

Held in key parts of Luzon, the country’s largest island, the two-week maneuvers are meant to enhance the “inter-operability” between the armed forces of the allies as part of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The training sorties, code-named Carat and Phiblex, also seek to bolster the Philippines’ territorial defenses, including its claims to part of the Spratly Islands, now the focus of an intensifying row between Washington and Beijing, the latter insisting on its historic rights over the potentially oil and mineral-rich islands.

Despite the VFA’s strategic importance in the wake of conflicting territorial claims over the strategic islands, Manila’s opposition groups still want the decade-old deal scrapped for legal and nationalistic reasons.

Opposition lawmakers in both houses of the Philippine Congress filed a joint resolution calling for the immediate abrogation of the VFA. The call is in sharp contrast to newly elected President Benigno Aquino’s position, which favors only a review or fine-tuning of the agreement.

Aquino was supposed to take up the VFA when he met US President Barack Obama last month in New York, but failed due to lack of time. Aquino, however, will press for a review when he meets Obama again in Washington for an official visit before the year ends.

Aquino has already informed US ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas Jr of a plan to “refine” the forces agreement in preparation for his second visit to the US. “I think it’s inarguable that there are benefits of the VFA, but perhaps a refinement is necessary. It can be made better,” he told reporters.

Aquino has advocated a renegotiation of the VFA since he was a senator. Prior to last year’s presidential elections, he signed a senate resolution calling for a review, citing Washington’s shortcomings to help modernize the Philippine military.

US military aid to the Philippines has jumped dramatically, rising from US$38 million in 2001 to $94 million in 2009. That amount will be boosted to $118.5 million this year. But Manila officials say that with the ongoing 15-year military modernization program, funded mainly by a constrained government budget, more US aid is needed.

Aquino is expected to lobby for even more US military assistance in the wake of rising insecurity over the Spratlys. The Philippines currently occupies nine of the Spratlys’ chain of islands. Apart from China, other claimants include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

Speaking at a forum organized by the US Council on Foreign Relations during his New York visit last month, Aquino expressed concern over China’s aggressiveness in staking its claims to the disputed island chain.

“If China does push its weight around, we in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] will stand as a bloc and oppose that,” Aquino said. “Hopefully, we won’t have to call it the South China Sea because it is not just their sea.”

The rising tensions over the Spratlys appear to have spurred a shift in Washington’s strategic priority – from counter-terrorism to containing powerhouse China’s expanding territorial ambitions.

Visiting US Pacific Command chief Admiral Robert Willard told a recent press briefing in Manila that China’s military expansionism, particularly over the South China Sea, was being closely monitored.

Viewing the VFA as an “integral and important” component of the US’s alliance with the Philippines, Willard said he was looking forward to addressing Manila’s defense needs under the country’s military modernization program.

“At the end of the day, we have to show that we can all contribute to the peace and the continued security of the China Sea region and through Southeast Asia. So this is about preventing conflict. We are not allowing any of the circumstances in the region to lead up to a shooting war,” Willard said.

Yankee go home

Opposition politicians view the VFA differently. Miriam Santiago, who chairs the senate’s foreign relations committee, says the VFA’s “fatal flaw” is its failure to specify the US troops’ period of stay in the Philippines.

“It calls itself a visiting agreement, but it has been in force for some 10 years now,” she says, referring to the continued stay of some 600 US military personnel to provide training to the Philippine military.

Santiago claimed that, until now, the US has failed in its obligation under the VFA to help modernize the poorly equipped Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Military officials have complained that while the US has turned over a number of helicopters, many were of Vietnam War-era vintage and referred to locally as “flying coffins” due to their tendency to malfunction.

“The VFA is a failure, because after 10 years, the AFP has not modernized sufficiently to keep up with our Asian neighbors and the terrorist groups are still active,” the lawmaker told fellow senators during a recent speech. She was referring to Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic militant group operating mainly in Mindanao.

Manila and Washington inked the military accord, which governs the conduct, entry and exit of American troops visiting the Philippines for military exercises, over a decade ago. It came into force on May 27, 1999, eight years after the closure of US military bases at Subic and Clark.

Santiago, an expert on international law, argues that under the Philippine constitution its congress has the power to revoke laws and treaties without the need for Aquino’s concurrence.

“Because treaties are considered as part of the laws of the land, congress can unilaterally abrogate the treaty on its own,” Santiago says. Aquino’s role is limited to giving a notice of termination to Washington, she says.

In the case of the US government, Santiago says there should be no problem because it does not recognize the VFA as a formal treaty and that the US Congress never gave its advice and consent to the agreement.

The lawmaker recalls that when the Philippine Congress ratified the VFA in 1999, then American president Bill Clinton merely transmitted the VFA to the US congress, in compliance with an American law called the Case-Zablocki Act.

This act requires that the US president, through the secretary ofstate, transmit to the US congress any international agreements entered into by the US government, or by its officials or agencies, which are not characterized as treaties.

“Therefore, the VFA is not valid and constitutional because it is not recognized as a treaty by the US on the account of its own constitution and law,” says Santiago.

Leftist groups represented in the Philippine congress have also joined the clamor for scrapping the VFA, claiming it breached the country’s constitutional ban on the presence of foreign troops and military bases.

“Recent events have made it abundantly clear that the VFA has trampled on our sovereignty as a nation. We stand firm on our position that the VFA is a lopsided agreement that has caused the permanent and continuing presence of US troops on Philippine territory,” says Bayan (Nation) secretary general Renato Reyes Jr.

He added that, under the VFA, “US troops are given special treatment and are not even placed under Philippine custody, even if they are already convicted.” He was referring to Lance Corporal Daniel Smith who was convicted by a Philippine court in 2006 for rape and sentenced to 40 years in jail, but later freed by a higher court due to alleged US intervention.

Critics say US forces have also overstayed in the southern island of Mindanao, where they’ve been stationed since 2002. “They are definitely no longer just visiting,” said Reyes. “While US troops are leaving Iraq, their counterparts in the Philippines are staying put.”

Like Bayan, the League of Filipino Students (LFS) also assailed the American soldiers for allegedly taking part in military operations against secessionist and communist rebels in Mindanao, a charge the Philippine military and US embassy officials strongly denied.

US troops “conduct intelligence-gathering and actual combat operations against alleged rebels and bandits, directly intervening in our country’s internal affairs,” LFS said in a statement. “Our national sovereignty must be upheld … US troops must leave and their bases here dismantled.”

However, AFP chief Lieutenant General Ricardo David opposed any scrapping of the VFA, saying the military lacked the firepower to defend the country’s territory should a shooting war break out over the Spratlys dispute. “As much as possible, we do not want any confrontation,” he says, citing the AFP’s aging US-supplied gunboats and warplanes.

He was reacting to reports that aside from China, Taiwan and Malaysia, another claimant, Vietnam, is also acquiring a fleet of diesel-fed Kilo Class submarines from Russia as Hanoi beefs up its military might to back its territorial claims to the Spratlys.

Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.

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