Last week, the Philippine government protested what it called China’s incursion into the country’s territorial waters in Scarborough Shoal. It also vociferously opposed North Korea’s decision to launch a rocket into space because of the debris that might land on Philippine soil. But while it has been obsessively suspicious over the real motives of China and North Korea, it readily welcomed the entry of United States troops into the country this week.
Around 4,500 soldiers from the U.S. Pacific Command have joined 2,300 Filipino troops in the 28th Philippine-U.S. Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises that are being held from April 16 to 27. Most of the military exercises will be held in Palawan Province, which is the nearest island to the highly contested Spratly islands. China is among the claimants of these islands.
By April 30, the U.S. and Philippine governments will be meeting in Washington to finalize details of the deployment of additional U.S. troops in the Philippines and the holding of more war games in other parts of the country. News reports suggest U.S. Marines from Okinawa are being moved to Guam and rotated to several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines.
As China and the U.S. vie for military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, the Philippines it seems has already decided to maintain closer military ties with its former colonial master over its Asian neighbor. The choice didn’t surprise analysts because the United States has been an influential force in the Philippines’ domestic politics over the past century.
Despite the decision of the Philippine Senate not to renew the U.S. bases treaty in 1991, U.S. troops were still able to visit and stay in the Philippines for an indefinite period because of the subsequent signing of several military agreements between the two governments. In fact, a de facto U.S. military camp exists in Zamboanga City in Mindanao Island where 600 U.S. Special Forces have been based since 2002.
Regardless, the war games and the continued presence of U.S. military troops in the country are being opposed by activist groups for various reasons.
First, some groups claim that these maneuvers violate Philippine sovereignty. They have also wanted to confirm if the visiting U.S. warship has nuclear arms because the Philippine Constitution explicitly bans nuclear weapons in the country.
In addition, activists have expressed fears that the war games could attract terrorists who might wish to plan an attack against U.S. soldiers in the Philippines. Finally, the government has been accused in the past of allowing U.S. soldiers to participate in actual combat operations against local rebels. The U.S. is suspected by some of providing drones during several local military offensives against rebel camps at a time when the Philippines is facing a separatist movement in Mindanao and a homegrown nationwide communist insurgency.
But it’s not only activists who have complained. Farmers and fishermen also complain because the war games are affecting their livelihoods. Some farmers say they have been driven from their land, while fishermen say they have been prevented from fishing near the site of the military exercises.
Renato Reyes of the leftist group Bayan summarized the opposition to the entry of U.S. soldiers in the Philippines: “The U.S. wants it known that it is still top dog in this region, to the great dismay of many peace-loving peoples in Southeast Asia. We do not want our country to be used as a U.S. outpost and playground. We are not a laboratory for U.S. drone wars. We do not want the U.S. meddling in our internal conflicts and regional issues. We do not want the Philippines acting like the U.S. troops’ doormat in the region. We do not want U.S. troops using our country as their Rest and Recreation destination of choice.”
Maybe it’s time for the Philippine government to review its foreign policy. While it has the right to forge military ties with the U.S., it shouldn’t equate the geopolitical interests of the U.S. with the Philippines. It must strive to adopt an independent foreign policy instead of merely parroting the viewpoint of the U.S. government.