July 11, 2013

Preempting a firestorm of protest

The “Amboy” (American Boy) troika of President Aquino, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario is hard at work justifying renewed basing rights for the United States Armed Forces while making it appear that there is nothing new about what will be granted to the US military that isn’t already in the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the little mentioned Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA).

Both the US and Philippine military officials were quick to douse reports about new bases being set up at the former US naval base in Subic, Olongapo City, to accommodate an up-scaled, longer-term and more enduring presence of US military naval vessels and forces in light of the US-declared “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region involving the “rebalancing” of sixty per cent of its forces, mainly sea-borne, in the area. 

The “pivot” is contained in the January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance document titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” and endorsed by no less than US President Barack Obama.  It cites as one of the US’ “core national interests” the deterrence and defeat of aggression by adversaries, including those “seeking to deny US power projection”.  The allusion is first and foremost to China, a country with which the US has an ongoing love-hate or, in diplomatese, engagement-containment, relationship. 

The code words bandied about by Philippine officials are “access”, “temporary” and “Philippine bases” to belie persistent reports that the US war machine is in fact gearing up for an open-ended stay of an indeterminate number of soldiers and war materiel undertaking unspecified activities within Philippine territory – including land, air and territorial waters – under new terms that guarantee wide latitude in command and unhampered operations.

We suspect a qualitative leap from the current set-up where US military presence is justified under the terms of the VFA and MLSA; that is, in terms of so-called joint exercises, rotational deployment, ship visits and docking for repairs, resupply and R and R, humanitarian assistance during disasters and civil-military actions designed to project US benevolence and low-key intelligence-gathering and exchange activities.  The military aspect of the US pivot certainly means more than just an increase in the frequency of these activities or even the number of troops and war vessels involved. 

But the Amboy troika is deliberately being vague about what exactly is being discussed in secret talks between Philippine and US defense officials except to say that national interest will be upheld in line with strategic alliances.  Nonetheless, President Aquino apparently slipped when he mentioned that “(foreign troops) need knowledge of our terrain, while we also need interoperability with them” as necessary in order to “coordinate” or “synchronize” the military deployment systems between forces of the US, Japan and the Philippines.

This statement should set alarm bells ringing among peace advocates since this could be a harbinger of more overt military involvement in the government’s counterinsurgency operations against the New People’s Army and even several Moro revolutionary organizations still at odds with the government. 

It also betrays that Mr. Aquino is toying around with the idea that an armed conflict involving our “strategic allies”, referring to the US and Japan, could actually be brought to our shores and therefore the Philippines should be preparing for it by giving these foreign forces wide-open access to our territory and military facilities.  Recall that barely two months ago Sec. Gazmin, in the wake of heightened tension in the Korean peninsula, brazenly called for the return of US bases to the country in the event of a shooting war between the combined US-South Korean forces and North Korea.

Many are still not aware of it, but if the US has its way, the Philippines would one day, in the not too distant future, serve as an ideal forward base for its attack fleets of drones, fighter jets, bombers and warships against China, which it considers its "closest potential peer rival".  As such, it also transforms into a giant magnet for an attack from any of the US' enemies, of which there are not a few candidates. 

One need not look far back in history. Seventy years ago, on December 8, 1941, Japanese warplanes bombed the US Air Base in Clark Field, Pampanga and other US military installations in the Philippines a few hours after the bombing attack on the US naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese subsequently invaded and occupied the Philippines, driving out all US armed forces.

After liberation, the US-Philippine military "alliance" was firmed up with the MDT and Military Bases Agreement and the formation of the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) purportedly to fend off the global communist threat in the context of the Cold War. This resulted in the deployment of Philippine troops to the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In time, the aura of US invincibility and benevolence shrouding the US-Philippine "alliance" has worn off revealing that US national interest underpinned the arrangements, nothing else.  

The US and the Aquino regime are well aware that the anti-bases movement in the country had scored an unprecedented upset in 1991 when the Philippine Senate voted to boot out US military installations from Philippine soil backed by a broad-based nationalist and democratic mass opposition to the renewal of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement. 

The combined strength of the US lobby, President Corazon Aquino’s backroom dealings with the senators and high-profile campaign for the retention of the bases, and big business’ and the Philippine military’s backing crumbled before the unrelenting mas protest actions, the sustained information and education campaigns that exposed the myth of “special relations” and “mutual benefit” and the ever-expanding anti-bases alliances that gained adherents with every twist and turn of the high-level negotiations hammering out the terms of the bases’ retention.

The Aquino regime is playing up the China bogey to the hilt (not so much the specter of a communist take-over but as new big bully in the neighborhood) in conjunction with the shrill “defense” of national territory (islets, shoals and waters in between located in the South China Sea now christened the West Philippine Sea).   With the latest straw man set up, the regime argues that what is needed is a “credible defense posture”.  In other words, hide behind Uncle Sam, the only Superpower in the world, with its mighty armada equipped with the deadliest high-tech weaponry known to man, and beg for the US military’s discards to be refurbished for the Philippine armed forces “modernization”.

The US and Aquino regime are reviving and recycling old, neocolonial thinking about RP-US relations that had been challenged, dissected and, to certain extent debunked, by the victorious struggle to kick out US bases in 1991. Yet they will avoid at all costs another bruising and risky political battle over a new basing treaty as required in the Philippine Constitution, Sec. 25, Art. XVIII, viz:

"After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning Military Bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State."

Thus, the trick will be how to deliver a fait accompli of US basing arrangements that is passed off as nothing new and perfectly covered by existing military agreements  – the MDT, VFA and MLSA -- to preempt a firestorm of protest. #

Published in Business World
12-13 July 2013


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