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Manila’s options

Publication Date : 17-03-2014


The so-called framework agreement on enhanced defence cooperation between the Philippines and the United States seems all but inevitable. The seventh round of negotiations is slated for the end of the month, but one official has estimated that 80 per cent of the deal is already done, and others suggest that the agreement will be concluded before US President Barack Obama visits Manila in April.

The real source of momentum, however, is China’s increasing assertiveness in pressing its territorial and maritime claims in disputed parts of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. In escalating the dispute by turning away fishing boats carrying supplies for the Philippine outpost in Ayungin Shoal, for instance, Beijing has only given Philippine negotiators even more reason to conclude an enhanced security agreement with the United States. And by insisting on the absolutist language of its preposterous claim to almost 90 per cent of the South China Sea, Beijing has given American defence planners even more reason to accelerate Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.

Without China’s increasing recklessness, is there any justification for either the Philippines or the United States to enter into a new or additional military agreement? We do not think so. Obama’s commitment to redirect 60 per cent of American military forces to Asia, the US decision to establish a new base in Australia, and its push for greater access to Philippine military bases are all based on an adverse reading of Beijing’s ambitions. Hence, the original title of the pact under negotiation: a framework agreement on “rotational military presence”—that is to say, increased and even more frequent rotation of US troops stationed in the Philippines.

The working title has since been improved to “enhanced defence cooperation,” which puts a premium on Manila’s pressing need to project a credible military posture. But worried as we are by Beijing’s provocations, we must still question the fundamental assumption behind the idea that enhanced defence cooperation between the Philippine military and the US armed services will lead to the desired credibility of posture.

After all, the controversial Visiting Forces Agreement, ratified by the Senate in 1999, some eight years after it had dramatically rejected a new US bases treaty, already provides for visiting US forces; indeed, since 2002, American military presence in the country has been continuous. Can we say that the country’s counter-terrorism posture is more credible today because of such American support?

Conversely, we can ask: President Aquino’s expensive modernisation of the Philippine military got underway even without the new agreement; will American military aid dry up if in fact there will be no agreement?

Our point is that a credible military posture can’t be anchored on absolute dependence on one ally alone, even if that ally is the world’s preeminent economic and military power. The status of forces agreement Manila signed with Canberra in 2007, which was belatedly ratified by the Philippine Senate in 2012, suggests that we can build up our defence capability with the help of other allies; this is a template, a strategy, worth pursuing.

Given, however, that Beijing seems to be forcing the issue, all but pushing Manila into Washington’s arms, isn’t it in the Philippines’ highest interest to enter into enhanced defence cooperation with the United States? That is a matter that should be the subject, not of an executive fiat, but of legislative deliberations. (The issue of Philippine access to US facilities that will be set up inside Philippine military bases, now in the headlines, is important but secondary.) Malacanang might argue that closer military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States will lead to a credible defence posture, but the Philippine Senate should debate the assumption behind that argument: Whether there is, in fact, need for enhanced defence cooperation with the United States.

With such a basic question at stake, the Department of National Defence is wrong to insist that the agreement under negotiation does not require Senate ratification. Not only will the smallest details of the agreement be tested in Senate deliberations; repairing to the Senate sends the message that Manila is not limited to a single option.


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