US-Philippines Struggle to Reach Troop Basing Deal

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US-Philippines Struggle to Reach Troop Basing Deal

While both sides are eager to conclude an agreement, negotiations still face numerous stumbling blocks.

On November 8 Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck the central Philippines with devastating effect. The U.S. offered immediate assistance in disaster relief and the next day U.S. Marines began deploying to the Philippines.

At a press conference on November 25, Philippines Secretary for Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario stated that the U.S. response demonstrated the need for the early conclusion of a new agreement covering the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

Rosario said, “What [we have seen] in Central Philippines as a result of this typhoon, and the assistance provided in terms of relief and rescue operation… demonstrates the need for this framework agreement that we are working out with the United States for increased rotational presence.”

A week later, he reported: “We’re looking to have the remaining issues discussed. As we speak there is a fifth round that’s taking place in the United States. So we’re hopeful that there will be a final conclusion in the signing.”

Currently, U.S. forces rotate through the Philippines under the terms of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement. These include between 500 and 600 troops in the southern Philippines, and U.S. service personnel who participate in three major annual joint exercises, the Balikatan series, Cooperation Afloat and Readiness and Training (CARAT), and the Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex).

The 29th Balikatan exercise was held in April 2013 with a primary focus on humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). Thirty U.S. aircraft, including a squadron of F-18s, three naval ships and 8,000 Filipino and American troops took part.

Del Rosario announced at the start of the exercise that the Philippines needed to secure its borders and protect its territorial integrity. He said Balikatan was not only an important contribution to prepare U.S. and Philippine armed forces to work together but also to build the Philippines’ own capacity to defend itself. He added that it was vital for the Philippines to have more U.S. forces rotate throughout the year and not just when planned exercises were being held.

Back in April of this year, with tensions running high on Korean peninsula, del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin announced that the Philippines was prepared to allow U.S. forces to use Philippine bases in the event of war in Korea. They argued that the Mutual Defense Treaty was reciprocal, it called on the U.S. to defend Philippines while the Philippines had an obligation to assist the U.S.

Balikatan 2013 was followed by four rounds of bilateral discussions on a framework agreement for an increased US military rotational presence. At the first round, held in Manila from August 13-14, discussion focused on a detailed legal agreement covering an increased temporary rotational presence involving U.S. ships, aircraft, Marines and the use of Philippine military facilities, including Subic Bay.

Immediately following the first round, in a significant development, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Emmanuel Bautista, Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, issued a Joint Vision Statement for Security Cooperation during talks in Washington. The Joint Vision Statement was billed as a partnership for the twenty-first century.

The Joint Statement declared: “We expect a robust, balanced and responsive partnership…[through] mutually beneficial bilateral military training exercises and operations, provided by an increased rotational and temporary presence of US military forces operating from Armed Forces of the Philippines-controlled facilities.”

With respect to maritime disputes, the Joint Statement agreed to resolve them through direct talks and through multilateral venues such as ASEAN, “in a manner that protects the interests of all who value unimpeded commerce transiting through the maritime domain, while deterring those who would restrict it or act in a manner that might place it at risk.”

The Philippines and the U.S. agreed to establish a “joint force posture that assures freedom of navigation and provides for common defense of each nation’s sovereign territory.”

The second round of bilateral talks were held in Manila on August 30 during the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. One reported sticking point is the length of the deal; the U.S. suggested a ten to twenty year period while the Philippines preferred a much shorter length of time.

The third round was held in Washington, DC from September 13-18. The draft framework agreement under discussion reportedly included five provisions: scope; agreed installations/AFP facilities; prepositioning of defense equipment, supplies, and materiel; ownership; and security.

At fourth round, held on October 3, the talks quickly reached an impasse over the issue of Philippines access to temporary facilities to be built by the U.S. to support its rotational forces and joint use of U.S. military equipment.

According to Defense Secretary Gazmin, the talks foundered on U.S. resistance to full Philippines control and access the temporary facilities. According to Gazmin, “we want access to both [US constructed temporary facilities]. It should not be limited to them. We want equal opportunity and equal access.”

If the fifth round of bilateral negotiations prove successful, it is likely that the U.S. rotational presence in the Philippines will pick up markedly in 2014. In the meantime, both sides are currently planning for the Balikatan 2014 exercise series.