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Between a Dragon and an Eagle

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New Leaders Forum

Between a Dragon and an Eagle

The Philippines isn’t sure how it feels about the U.S. military presence. A rising China leaves it little choice.

Philippine politics couldn’t be more fascinating or discordant. Recent months have witnessed open legal warfare between the Benigno Aquino administration and its allies in the legislature, on the one hand, and the judiciary, on the other. The ongoing impeachment trial in the Philippine Senate against Chief Justice Renato Corona is part of an attempt by the government to purge allies of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from all key state institutions and eliminate widespread corruption in the bureaucracy.

However, intra-state bickering has spread to other issue areas as well. Thanks to escalating tensions in the South China Sea, and growing calls for a more robust Philippine-U.S. military partnership as America pivots to Asia, there seems to be a new front in the making.

Legislators from both houses of congress are pressuring the executive branch to re-assess the very wisdom of the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 by specifically focusing on the provisions as well as the implementation of the1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA),which governs the conduct of U.S. military operations in the Philippines.

The United States is not only a former colonial power in the Philippines, but also the Philippines’ most important political ally in its post-colonial history. Washington’s importance to Filipino security was made clear after the Philippine Senate, riding on a nationalist and post-Cold War frenzy, voted in 1992 to not renew the country’s basing agreement with the United States. Within four years, Manila was forced to contend with the grim reality of Chinese intrusions into its territories, culminating in the 1995 Mischief Reef incident. The experience awakened the country to its glaring lack of defense capabilities and the logic of balance of power.

In the years that have followed, Manila and Washington have hammered out a series of agreements that allowed for a non-permanent, non-direct, U.S. military presence in the Philippines. According to the current arrangements, as enshrined in the provisions of the Philippine Constitution and reflected in the VFA, American troops have neither the right to engage in direct combat operations on Philippine soil, nor the mandate to establish permanent bases in the Philippines. They are only legally allowed to train, inform, equip, and advise the Philippine military.

In December 2001, the Philippines became part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and thus a U.S. ally in Washington’s global “War on Terrorism”.The following year, the United States dispatched troops from its Special Operations Command Pacific to support operations in the Philippines, which at the time theNew York Timesdescribed, “[as] the largest single deployment of American military might outside Afghanistan to fight terrorists since the Sept. 11 attack.”Thus, the United States gradually moved towardsestablishing a permanent troop presence in Mindanao, wherein they provided logistical and intelligence support for the Philippine Military’s campaign against various “terrorist” groups including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf, and the al-Qaeda regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

In 2003, the U.S. Defense Department announced that the Philippines and United States would engage in a combined operation against Abu Sayyaf– which in practical terms meant that U.S. forces wouldn’t be merely a “support mechanism,” but a direct participant in kinetic operations on Philippine soil. The operation involved 350 U.S. special operations personnel who were logistically backed-up by 750 Americans in the regional headquarters in Zamboanga. In succeeding years, the Philippine shores would host notorious mercenary private contractors. In 2007, Anne Tyrrell, Blackwater’s spokesman said, “[w]e are no longer pursuing a facility in the Philippines.” However, in 2009, American investigative journalistWayne Madsen alleged that Satelles Solution, a Blackwater subsidiary, was using a “five-acre facility in the former United States naval base [Subic] to train operatives for secret U.S.-backed military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotspots.” In many ways, during the Bush-Arroyo era the Philippines became a “training ground” for U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

There’s no denying that the Americans played a pivotal role in many high profile COIN operations that severely undermined Philippine-based activities by groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and JI. The latest such high-profile operation was in Jolo, with Filipino officials claiming that three of the region’s most wanted terror suspects – namely, Singaporean Mohammad Ali (alias Muawiyah), Umbra Jumdail and Zulkifli Khir,who have all been blamed for coordinated attacks against American troops – had been killed.

During the course of Philippines-U.S. military cooperation, the U.S. troops are said to have not only provided tactical training and instructions, but also real-time, actionable intelligence for target-rich, time-sensitive operations. This has allegedly included high-resolution satellite imagery, trans-regional triangulated intelligence on terrorist networks, and even drones to support Filipino troop operations against common insurgent enemies.

Ironically, although the VFA stipulates a “temporary” and “indirect” U.S. military presence in the Philippines, there’s a growing impression that the U.S. presence is not only “temporarily indefinite”, but also that it has been more direct in practice. There are concerns that U.S. troops do actually possess “bases” within Filipino bases, namely the Camp Navarro in Zamboanga, with foreign troops exercising de facto jurisdiction over such facilities. Also, there are reports that the Americans haven’t been confined to an advisory-supporting role, and instead have actually engaged in direct combat operations – from special force’s conducting kinetic operations to drone strikes – alongside their Filipino counterparts. For such reasons, legislators and civil society groups have voiced their growing discontent over the status of the VFA, with some raising the specter of constitutional violations to justify terminating the agreement. Currently, there are several pending bills in the legislature that propose abrogating and/or reviewing the VFA.

Simultaneously, however, China’s rise is fuelling a more explicit Filipino tilt toward the United States. Since June 2011, the two countries have intensified their strategic dialogue and military cooperation, with pledges to increase U.S. military assistance to the Philippines and intensify ongoing negotiations on enhancing the U.S. military presence in the country. Earlier this year, the two countries concluded their 2nd Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, with a joint statement promising to build a more robust military alliance.Earlier this month, Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, traveled to the Philippines to conduct discussions with senior government officials on issues like enhancing bilateral military cooperation on both traditional and non-traditional security issues and helping the Philippines to achieve “a minimum, credible defense-deterrence capability.” These negotiations continue to be ongoing with some reports claiming that Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario and Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin will travel to Washington between March and April to iron out a final deal. In response, hawkish elements within China have called for sanctions against the Philippines’ purported efforts to stoke tensions in Sino-American relations. There’s growing concern that the Philippines’ current efforts will pave the way for a “superpower-rivalry,” drawing Manila into an even bigger conflict.

In fact, many Filipino legislators from across the political and ideological spectrum have raised concerns about Manila’s plans to intensify U.S. military operations in the Philippines as a potential hedge against China’s territorial assertiveness and rapidly growing military capabilities. For instance, Congressman Walden Bello has raised concerns with the transparency of the ongoing negotiations between Manila and Washington, while other legislators have called for a more thorough and explicit discussion of how current negotiations and agreements with the U.S. serve the Philippines’ “national interest” – an unclear issue in itself.

It remains to be seen whether the legislature and the executive branches can reach a consensus on how to manage military relations with Washington. Yet the larger strategic issue is whether the Philippines can strike an appropriate balance between its relationship with the U.S. and China in order to defend its national interests. 

Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].