• Philippines opens talks on increased US presence

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    Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario gives his opening statement while Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin listens during a briefing on Monday on the negotiations to increase the US presence in the country. Photo By Miguel De Guzman

    Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario gives his opening statement while Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin listens during a briefing on Monday on the negotiations to increase the US presence in the country. Photo By Miguel De Guzman

    Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Monday vowed that the Constitution will be “respected” and the interests of the government and its people will be “preserved and promoted” when Philippine officials sit down with their American counterparts to hammer out terms on the increase of US presence in the country.

    “This week will mark the start of our negotiations with the United States to institutionalize this policy of increased rotational presence through a framework agreement. This week, diplomacy and defense will once again intersect to secure our nation,” del Rosario, the former Philippine Ambassador to the United States, said in his speech before Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and members of the Philippine negotiating panel.

    He said that giving the US increased rotational presence would enable the Philippines to “modernize its army even before the necessary purchase of defense system is made, enhance deterrence of crimes before modernization, boost maritime security and maritime domain awareness before ships and aircrafts are acquired, educate personnel on how to use and maintain military hardware before having them and improve the timely response to humanitarian and disaster relief in the region stressed the need to strengthen both diplomacy and defense.”

    During the second bilateral strategic dialogue and the 2+2 meeting
    between the US and the Philippines in January and March last year, the agreement to increase Washington’s rotational presence in the Philippines was finalized. This was confirmed during the third bilateral strategic dialogue in Manila in November 2012.

    The US has similar agreements with Singapore and Australia.

    The framework for the agreement, del Rosario said, will be respectful of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

    The DFA chief earlier said that the parameters and modalities have to be defined before US and Japanese troops are allowed access to former military bases in the country, particularly those in Subic Bay in Zambales province and Clark Air Base in Pampanga.

    Some 500 to 600 American soldiers routinely hold Balikatan exercises in southern Mindanao to train and provide intelligence information to Filipino soldiers with regards to containing rebel groups in the region.

    US navy ships have also made routine port calls to the Philippines annually.

    Del Rosario said Philippine negotiators are required to regularly update the public on the negotiations between the Philippine and US governments.

    “Our people need to know that our laws are observed and our interests are protected at all times,” he said.

    “Our region would also need to know that we are steadfastly for peace; but that we stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance, to do what is necessary in order to defend what is ours, to secure our nation and to keep our people safe,” he added.

    Military equipment
    The Defense department said it will insist on using US military equipment that will be prepositioned here once the agreement becomes final.

    Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said that they would push information sharing such as in maritime domain awareness mission, among other activities.

    “We (will) not agree on any activity that will not benefit us,” Batino said.

    “One of the possible benefits for the Philippine government is the possibility of these temporarily deployed equipment to be used by the Philippine government for key mission areas such as maritime, security, maritime domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” he added.

    Without mentioning China, Batino pointed out that the negotiation is also part of the effort of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to attain a minimum credible defense posture at the soonest possible time.

    “It is to address all threats against our territory, and to protect our sovereignty.”

    But Foreign Undersecretary Carlos Sorreta, the government’s chief negotiator, explained that the framework agreement will only provide general parameters and principles.

    “It will not provide details as to the size and shape of each activity mutually approved by the Philippines and the US,” he said, adding that there would also be an annual or regular consultative mechanism to be undertaken by the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Agreement Board.

    Through this mechanism, the AFP would have a chance to assess and study the proposed activities for the coming year if it would be mutually beneficial to both countries.

    “Your negotiating panel will only recommend the execution of a framework agreement if it is convinced that it will serve national interest and it will strengthen the defense posture of the Philippines,” Sorreta said.

    Formal negotiations between the two parties will officially start on Wednesday. The US panel will be headed by Ambassador Eric John, a senior negotiator for military agreements of the State Department.

    Malacañang on Monday said that it supports the negotiations.

    ”We act according to what is in our best national interest,” he said. “It’s a framework agreement. Both sides will have to discuss. Both sides will negotiate on what will be the terms mutually beneficial to both,” Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

    ”We have our interest to protect. We have our own national interest to advance,” Lacierda added.

    With a report from Catherine Valente

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