Panel allows US 'construction' in PH bases

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine panel allowed US "construction" in Philippine military bases but stressed this is temporary.

Structures will have to be approved first by the Philippines and will have to be removed when the activities are completed.

"Any construction will have to be removed by the US once the approved activity is completed," a press release by the Philippine embassy in Washington on "specific understandings" between the US and Philippine panels said.

They are negotiating a new military-to-military agreement that will increase rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines and grant them wider access to Philippine military bases.

“Where and what can be prepositioned will be subject to prior approval by the Philippine government and based on mutuality of interest. Any approval will contain specific areas and time for the temporary activity,” Philippine panel spokesperson Carlos Sorreta explained.

The panels held a second round of talks on Friday, August  30 (Saturday Philippine time), at the US Department of Defense in the Pentagon. The first round of talks was held in Manila.

The Philippine panel is headed by Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino. Other members aside from Sorreta are Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III and Defense Assistant Secretary Raymund Quilop.

Subic, other facilities

The embassy press release lists the following agreements:

In Manila, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Subic and "other military facilities" will be made accessible to US forces. "As soon as the framework is complete, we will provide necessary activities," Gazmin said.

The Philippines sought the assistance of the US to improve the country's "minimum credible presence" in the wake of China's aggressive behavior over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The request also coincides with Washington's rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific.

Shorter duration?

The US has similar agreements with other countries that have a duration of 20 years. "Right now, the Philippine delegation is looking at a much shorter duration,” said Sorreta.

The duration will have to be discussed in the next round of talks scheduled in the second week of September in the US. 

The panels were also able to flesh out details on humanitarian aid and disaster relief "including discussions on how training, equipment and materiel for maritime domain awareness would be used for humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts," the press statement said.

The new agreement has been criticized as a ploy to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on foreign military bases and the Senate's exclusive power to forge treaties with other countries. The government maintained they will be guided by existing agreements — the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

"The US can and will use the Philippines as staging ground for military intervention in other parts of the world, dragging us into conflicts not of our choosing and against our interest," said Renato Reyes of the militant group Bayan. 

When the US had bases in Manila, there used to be tens of thousands of US troops here. The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to end their contracts. They were able to return in 1999 following the approval of the VFA, which allows the temporary presence of US troops in the country. 

Top US officials visit Manila

Top US and Philippines defense and military officials have been holding dialogues as the new military-to-military agreement is being completed. No less than US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the Philippines on Friday, August 30, to conclude his Southeast Asian trip. 

Hagel stressed the "unbreakable alliance" between the US and the Philippines. His visit comes amid new tension between the Philippines and China. President Benigno Aquino III canceled his scheduled trip to Nanning, China after China requested him to postpone his trip. 

US Pacific Command chief Admiral Samuel Locklear has also visited Manila at least twice since last year.

Armed Force chief Gen Emmanuel Bautista recently flew to the US to meet with his counterpart Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey to discuss the expansion of a US military presence in the Philippines.

The Armed Forces chief in an earlier press conference explained that "alliance" is "part of deterrence," considering that relative to China, the Philippines is a small country. Up to 5 Chinese ships continue to circle Panatag (Scarborough) and Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal).

"We are trying to leverage our alliances with our friends and our allies to collectively create that secure environment to prevent any aggression. That is part of deterrence — alliance — while we do not have the wherewithal and capability to defend our territory by ourselves," Bautista said. — Rappler.com