Problems in the PH-US bases access deal?
MANILA, Philippines – Just when President Benigno Aquino III said the Philippines and the US were close to concluding a military deal that would increase the presence of American troops in the Philippines, Rappler learned there was a shake up in the Philippine panel. (READ: PH, US 'close' to signing military deal)
Department of Foreign Affairs assistant secretary Carlos Soreta has left the Philippine panel, the government confirmed.
"It's part of the rotation scheme of the officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He is now the head of the Foreign Service Institute," foreign affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez told Rappler in a text message on Monday, February 10.
Soreta no longer participated in the 5th round of talks held in Washington DC on January 30. The DFA was represented there by Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya and Ambassador to Vienna Lourdes Yparraguirre, Rappler also learned.
Asked if there are problems with the negotiations with the US, Hernandez no longer replied.
When the talks began in August 2013, initial press releases introduced Soreta as the chairman of the Philippine panel. This was amended in succeeding announcements to show that Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino is panel chairman.
It is, after all, a military-to-military agreement intended to allow increased rotational presence of American troops in the Philippines and give them more access to our military bases.
The panel has always been tightlipped about the details, but they gave assurances the agreement would abide by the Constitution. The panel also maintains that it doesn't need ratification by the Senate, like other agreements with other countries.
"The agreement will just be an implementing document for the Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement," Batino said in a recent interview. (READ: Enrile: US access to PH bases may violate law)
Impasse last year
The talks reached an impasse after Round 4 of talks in October 2013. The Philippine panel allowed the US to construct "temporary" facilities in the Philippines but the US panel sought to limit the access of the Philippines to these facilities. Batino talked about the "substantial work" that still needed to be done.
"It is very opportune that there will be more time to study these things....There would be substantial work to be done internally by the Philippine panel to study and review possibilities on the remaining issues." (Bases access: PH, US disagree on 'critical provisions')
"Personally I would have to conduct substantial study and examination of issues," Batino added then. (Watch the video here.)
Informal talks were held in December 2013 before Round 5 in January. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin vowed we would insist on equal access. (READ: PH to press 'equal access' to US facilities in bases deal)
Round 6 will be held in March.
Panel chair remains optimistic
Despite the shake up, the President told the New York Times in a February 4 interview that the military-to-military agreement is nearing completion.
Batino is optimistic. "We’re hopeful. We're hopeful that both parties will be able to come into agreement at the soonest possible time," he told Rappler on the sidelines of a recent Senate hearing.
Here’s a verbatim transcript of an ambush interview with Batino following Aquino's New York Times interview.
Q: The President said you are close to a deal?
Batino: We see great prospect in the finalization of negotiations in the near future.
Q: Near future? What is the timeline?
Batino: It’s a negotiation and therefore one party does not control.
Q: The next round of talks will happen in March. Are we going to expect possible signing then?
Batino: We’re hopeful. We're hopeful that both parties will be able to come into agreement at the soonest possible time.
Q: What is the status of talks on the equal access to facilities?
Batino: With respect to certain items also in consideration, we cannot divulge anything yet.
Q: The defense secretary said the Philippines will insist on equal access.
Batino: Yes. Just like that we promised that the agreement will be consistent with the fundamental principles of sovereignty.
Q: This deal will not need Senate approval?
Batino: The agreement will just be an implementing document for the Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement.
The US used to have bases in the Philippines that allowed the presence of tens of thousands of US troops here. But the Senate voted in 1991 to end their contracts. They were able to return in 1999, following the approval of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows the temporary presence of US troops in the country.
It is against the backdrop of growing maritime disputes that the Philippines is now asking for the increased presence of US troops here. It also coincides with the so-called US pivot to Asia. — Rappler.com
Round 1 held in Manila: PH, US begin talks on access bases
Round 2 and 3 held in the US: Panel allows US 'construction in PH bases and 2nd round of talks for US access to PH bases
Round 4 in Manila: PH, US disagree on 'critical provisions' and PH to press 'equal access to facilities in bases deal
December informal talks in US: PH, US resume bases access talks after impasse
Round 5: PH, US bases access talks resume January 30 and PH, US 'close' to signing military deal