Filipinos Decry New U.S. Military Agreement
Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, 1 May
Civil society groups and local politicians are reacting with anger to a new agreement by the United States that would increase its military engagement with the Philippines.
On Monday, U.S. and Filipino delegations met for a first-ever high- level strategic dialogue.
"It is terribly discouraging that the Philippine government cannot figure out a truly healthy relationship with the U.S. – that is, a relationship that allows the Philippines to forge meaningful relationships with America as well as with its neighbours, including China," Gina Apostol, the author of a novel on the Philippine elite's relationship with the U.S. military, told IPS.
"We are too stuck on our historical relationship with America, even though it has been patently disgraceful and traumatic."
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta met with their Philippine counterparts, Albert del Rosario and Voltaire Gazmin, for a highly anticipated summit, referred to as "2+2".
The meeting was the first of its kind between the two long-time allies. It was also the most high-level talks yet in a months-long – some would say decade-long – attempt by the U.S. to re-forge strong relations with the Philippines.
The umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) is warning that the moves would dangerously increase the Philippines' dependence on the United States.
"This is the kind of mendicant foreign policy which has prevented our country from developing its own credible defence posture, because it is so dependent on U.S. military aid," Bayan secretary-general Renato M. Reyes Jr. said in a statement on Tuesday. "The U.S. certainly got more out of this meeting than the Philippines. It's part of the bigger U.S. agenda in the Pacific."
While the country is a former U.S. colony and remains one of the United States' most important Asian allies, bilateral relations soured in the early 1990s. At that time, the Manila government refused to authorise an extension of the agreement that had for decades allowed for the presence of two U.S. military bases in Philippine territory.
U.S. attempts to get back into the country began almost immediately, however, and picked up steam in the aftermath of the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
Indeed, the lack of any specific treaty notwithstanding, the U.S. has had troops stationed in the Philippines since 2000, and the two countries have engaged in significant annual joint military training throughout that period. The most recent such actions took place in late April, just days before the recent summit.
Importantly, the 2+2 talks took place as a territorial dispute is escalating between China and the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea – what Secretary of State Clinton recently referred to the West Philippine Sea, enraging Chinese sentiment. For nearly four weeks, both countries have had naval vessels stationed near the islands, called the Scarborough Shoal.
Yet at the talks here, the Philippine delegation told U.S. officials that the Philippines' military was ill-equipped to deal with any significant action. Del Rosario also noted that this deficiency could pose a threat to future U.S. interests.
"For the Philippines to be minimally relied upon as a U.S. regional partner," he said during the meetings, "it & behoves us to resort to all possible means to build at the very least a most minimal credible defence posture."
Gina Apostol suggests that such attempts to appeal to U.S. military strategy could backfire.
"We hope to use American military as leverage, but whose ploy is that, really?" she asks. "We're simply falling into the hands of a military-industrial complex that is ultimately rapacious and thoughtless of its consequences on the people who mistakenly believe it will be for their protection."
"Any engagement with America's military aims is a threat to our sovereignty," she continues. "But worse than that – it is a threat to our peace.
It is little wonder that the Philippine delegation's request did not fall on deaf ears in Washington. Following on President Barack Obama's November 2011 announcement that the United States would be shifting its strategic focus towards Asia, speculation has been widespread over the future role to be played by the Philippines in this changed context – and of China's reaction to increased U.S. interest in its backyard.
Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. has moved to strengthen the Philippines' naval forces, while also raising the possibility of rotating U.S. military personnel through Philippine bases. At the 2+2 talks, the United States agreed to give the Philippines a new naval vessel, the second one this year.
Reyes, the Bayan secretary-general, warns that the results of the 2+2 talks do not seem to suggest that any new agreement is in the offing on the U.S. military's formal role in the Philippines.
"The U.S. will maintain its 600 Special Forces in (the Philippine island of) Mindanao, even without a basing treaty," he said. "These troops have been in the country for the last 10 years and are believed to be engaged in combat roles."
Long-simmering public discontent over the U.S. engagement in the Philippines could now crystallise into political implications, including for President Benigno Aquino III.
"Like his predecessors, this Aquino's administration has allowed the continued exploitation of our country by the U.S. by (agreeing) to unequal treaties," the League of Filipino Students (LFS) said in a statement Tuesday.
"Not only did these arrangements allow for the easy intrusion of big foreign companies into the Philippines & but also grant U.S. troops entry into the country and (allow for) their stay for an indefinite time."
Within the Philippine government, too, the prospect of greater U.S. military engagement has been met with frustration. On Tuesday, Representatives Neri Colmenares and Teodoro Casiño told the local media that the government should not be "inviting U.S. meddling", as it "undermines the Filipino nation's sovereignty and independence and even brings the country to the brink of war."