Senate scrutiny of PH-US talks pushed

Carmela Fonbuena

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It's the first round of talks between the Philippines and the US on increased American military presence here

PHILIPPINE PANEL: Media briefing on PH-US talks on increased rotational presence. DND photo

MANILA, Philippines — “The devil is in the details.”

Senate President Franklin Drilon wants the Senate actively involved in the ongoing talks between the Philippines and US on a new agreement that will expand US military presence in the Philippines. 

“The devil is in the details,” Drilon said in a statement Friday, August 16. “As a senator, it is my obligation to our people to ensure that any agreement the government will enter into is legal and in accordance with our Constitution. I will examine the outcome of the negotiations to see to it that it will not infringe on the lives of our people and their guaranteed rights.”

Drilon wants the foreign affairs and defense departments to brief the senators on the outcome of the first round of talks last Wednesday, August 14. The Philippine panel is scheduled to brief lawmakers next week. 

The new deal has the title “Framework Agreement between the Philippines and the United States on the Increased Rotational Presence or Enhanced Defense Co-operation.” It will allow increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines and the deployment of US military assets for disaster and maritime security operations.

The Aquino government has thrown its full support behind this in the wake of China’s aggressive behavior over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). But critics are wary that the Philippines might be used as a launching pad for more intense military operations by the US against terrorists.

The Senate has the exclusive power to ratifiy treaties with foreign governments. But the new deal is meant to be an executive agreement — between the US military and the Department of National Defense — and will not require Senate approval. 

As long as the new agreement respects limitations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Drilon said Senate ratification will not be required.

MDT and VFA are existing treaties ratified by the Senate to guide the presence of foreign troops in the country. 

“There [is no] part in the VFA that allows permanent basing,” Drilon said.

No to nukes

The panels held their first round of talks on Wednesday. There are still a lot of details to be threshed out but Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta said they agreed that Filipinos will have full control of military bases and the Americans cannot bring in nuclear weapons.

“Another thing [we made sure of] is nuclear weapons. If there is prepositioning, obviously that is not going to be allowed,” Sorreta told reporters in a briefing on Thursday, August 15. 

The 1987 Constitution states: “The Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in its territory.”

Sorreta stressed that the Armed Forces of the Philippines will always have full control of its military bases. “If we suspect or believe that the ship — when they ask for permission to enter — has nuclear weapon then we have the right to deny it,” he said.

“We actually don’t have to see and touch the weapon. Just because they won’t confirm or deny doesn’t mean we have to grant diplomatic clearance. If we have suspicions, we will deny that if it is our belief that it is carrying nuclear weapons,” Sorreta explained. 

The US Embassy also said its military will only deploy drones at the request of the Philippine government. Drones may be used to assist in aerial surveillance for humanitarian efforts during disasters.

The embassy was reacting to a statement by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte saying the US sought his permission to use an old airport in his city as the base for operations of its drones. Duterte said he refused.

READ: Duterte says no to drones

US proposed text

The Philippines received the proposed text of the US government, which the Philippine panel reviewed. 

“In the first round of negotiations which happened yesterday, the Philippine panel was able to provide its initial comments to the proposed text,” said Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino. 

“We were also able to provide our initial comments to the specific wordings of the text presented to us. I must however apologize that, as mentioned in the first press conference, we cannot go into further detail while the negotiations are ongoing,” Batino added.

Sorreta said the Philippine panel stressed the following principles:

  • respect for Philippine sovereignty
  • non-permanence of US troops and no US basing in the Philippines 
  • full Philippine control and authority over facilities
  • the mutuality of benefits
  • respect for the constitutional prohibition against nuclear weapons

The next round of talks will be held in Washington “towards the end of this month.”

No specific number of troops

The new military deal will not specify the specific number of US troops that will be deployed in the Philippines. Batino said the agreement will only provide “general parameters and principles on the implementation of existing treatis Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).” 

“It will not talk about the exact size and shape of the visiting troops and the visiting equipment from the US. We have an existing mechanism for the AFP and the US Pacific Command to determine every year the list of activities and the details of these activities,” said Batino. 

Sorreta explained: “What we’re creating is a framework so that our military officials can sit and they have a framework in which to discuss how to go about the increased rotational presence.”—

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