Military hardware speaks louder than nationalist rant
US President Barack Obama arrives Monday to cap his four-nation Asian trip as uncertainty prevails over whether the Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation (AEDC) between the Philippines and the United States will be ready for signing during his two-day visit.
Described by the Wall Street Journal as the “centerpiece” of his visit, details of the agreement were as of Sunday still being hammered out in last-hour meetings of the Philippine and US panels.
The meetings were shrouded in secrecy, violating Malacañang’s norms that “any agreement with any country will be open for public scrutiny in keeping with the administration’s commitment to transparency, accountability and good governance.”
There are signs that the panels are struggling to prevent the agreement from becoming a controversial climax to Obama’s Asian visit, which was aimed at reassuring US allies in the Asia Pacific—the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia—of its commitment to defend them against increasing aggressive actions toward China’s neighbors with territorial disputes with Beijing in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Broadest access to bases
Early this month, Philippine and US negotiators were reported in Philippine media to have agreed on the draft of accord “that would give American forces their broadest access to Filipino bases in more than 20 years.”
The reports also said the agreement “doesn’t involve the permanent stationing of US troops in the Philippines—an issue that grates deeply on the sensitivities of Filipino nationalists and left-leaning activists.
They have been overly concerned over the alleged impairment of Philippine sovereignty by US troop deployments under security treaties with the United States while they turn a blind eye to recent encroachments and occupation by Chinese paramilitary ships of territories claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.
Consensus on key provisions
As early as the first week of April, the Philippine panel was reported to have reached a consensus on “key provisions and modalities that would reflect, among other things, full respect for Philippine sovereignty, nonpermanence of US troops and no US military bases in the Philippines, and prohibition against weapons of mass destruction.”
As of Sunday, no details have been disclosed of the updated provisions of the new agreement that is expected to be announced before the departure of Obama. The Philippines is seeking a broader defense cooperation agreement with the United States as its territorial dispute with China intensifies.
This initiative comes amid US plans to “rebalance” its forces in the Asia Pacific. The United States has similar arrangements with Australia and Singapore as part of its strategy to contain China’s growing military power, according to Philippine negotiators.
“After 15 years of the Visiting Forces Agreement [following the termination of US leases on its military bases in the Philippines in 1992] and given current realities, challenges and opportunities, the Philippines is ready for a heightened level of defense cooperation,” said Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, chair of the Philippine panel.
The talks began in August last year amid China’s increasing aggressiveness in claiming territories in the South and East China Seas, engaging the Philippines and Japan in a bitter maritime row that has become the most critical flash points of armed conflict in the region.
After Obama’s visit to Japan last week, the focus of his Asian tour has shifted to the AEDC between the Philippines and the United States.
The agreement will be a clear sign of a US “rebalance” to Asia despite US preoccupation elsewhere, such as the annexation of Crimea by Russia, according to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.
Revealing few more details of the proposed agreement, Del Rosario said the accord would enable the sharing of Philippine bases, increase the rotation of US ships, aircraft and troops through the Philippines, and reassure allies of support against a rising China.
“There is full resolve on the part of the United States to fulfill their commitments on this Asia rebalancing not only in terms of defensive security but also in terms of enhancing economic cooperation,” Del Rosario told Reuters in an interview.
The agreement will boost the Philippines’ surveillance capabilities in the disputed South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), he said.
Even without the agreement, the Philippine military is getting more support from the United States. This year, the Philippines will get $50 million in US foreign military financing, the largest amount in more than a decade, and another $40 million from a US global security contingency fund.
More US military aid
The funding will be used strictly to boost naval capability, with the Philippines possibly getting a third Hamilton-class, high-endurance cutter, he said.
The first two Hamiltons that the Philippines got from the United States in the last three years are the largest and most modern warships in the Philippine Navy. “The South China Sea can be very rough and small warships cannot manage the South China Sea in periods that are not summer; very few of our ships can withstand the waves there.”
Reuters reported that the United States planned to rotate to Philippine bases a squadron of fighters, P3C-Orion long-range maritime surveillance aircraft and a littoral combat ship after the pact is signed. It has also promised to help install coastal radars to help the Philippines watch over its maritime borders.
Del Rosario does not tell us what the quid pro quo is for these military acquisitions. And now, what can the nationalist activists contribute to defending our territorial sovereignty from creeping Chinese encroachments, in lieu of an enhanced security agreement? The Chinese have greater respect for military hardware than nationalist outpourings.