The American factor in Philippine foreign policy (2)

3

Second of three parts. [Part 1 of this 3-part series came out Saturday Oct. 17.]

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FRIENDSHIP between the two countries is bound to endure permanently. This will give the lie to the cliché that, in the relations among nations, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. There are a number of reasons why Filipino-American friendship will endure. The historical link is intact. Their security partnership is assured under the 1951 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). According to a census report released in March 2010, the Filipinos constitute the second largest Asian group in the US after the Chinese.

The total number of Filipinos was placed at 3.4 million with one million undocumented outside this number. “Decoupling” from American economic linkage is impossible since the US has remained a major economic partner of the Philippines in many ways. There had been “love-hate” episodes in PH-US relations but they almost always succumbed to the better nature of the Filipinos and the Americans. Given the foregoing considerations, the furtherance of PH-US relations will remain a “constant” in Philippine foreign policy.

Post – 1991 scenario

After the final pullout of American troops from the Philippines, the Asia-Pacific region was confronted by a rather ironic situation.

When President Corazon Aquino opened the Asean Summit in Manila in December 1987, she quoted a US publication: “The Philippine factor is said to have contributed to the securing of the air space and sea lanes that are vital to the continued economic stability and growth of our neighbors in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific.”

This statement signified the importance to the region of the American military presence in the Philippines. But when the Philippines was about to start negotiating for the 1991 treaty and seeking expression of political support from its neighbors nobody dared to come out in the open, except Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore who said that his government was appreciative of the regional worth of the American bases but stopped short of indicating that it was willing to share the political burden of the Philippines in hosting the bases. The Aquino government, therefore, was left alone to carry the burden of justifying the continued American military presence in her country.

The scenario in Southeast Asia, in particular, and in Asia Pacific, in general, appeared to have changed during the post-Cold War period. Speculations have been made as to whether the US would remain “strategically engaged” and continue to contribute in maintaining peace and stability in the region. There was likewise awareness of the fact that dangerous flashpoints exist in the Asia pacific region, such as North Korea’s intransigence on the nuclear issue and the contest among six Asian countries for control of supposedly oil-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Asean member countries with dynamic economies have realized that they have to take responsibility for the basic elements of regional security. Therefore, as a strategy for self-reliance, they were modernizing their armed forces as much as their increasingly ascending economies would allow. The Philippines was left behind in this regard.

Although helpless in modernizing its military, the Philippines managed to spell out its foreign policy. Under the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos, the three pillars of Philippine foreign policy were enunciated as follows:

First, the preservation and enhancement of national security; Second, the promotion and attainment of economic security through the mobilization of external resources of economic advancement and social development; and Third, the protection of the rights, and the promotion of the welfare and interests, of Filipinos overseas. (These three pillars continue to define the thrust of Philippine foreign policy up to the present.)

Apart from the quotation cited by President Aquino in 1987, some of the arguments stated by the pro-treaty advocates in 1991 appeared valid. Consider the following:

1. The new treaty will neither impair nor violate Philippine sovereignty since entering into a treaty is by itself an exercise of sovereignty. The US has military base rights agreements with seven other countries, namely, Japan, South Korea, Spain, UK, Greece, Portugal, and Turkey, but these countries never consider these basing agreements as an infringement on their sovereignty.

2. The end of the Cold War does not signify the end of conflict but rather the beginning of intraregional dissension. Therefore, the US military bases have not become anachronistic or obsolescent because they contribute to regional order and stability. (Underscoring supplied)

3. Approval of the treaty would give the Armed Forces of the Philippines the required time to implement a ten-year modernization program, a third of which will be financed from the bases compensation package.

The pro-treaty advocates seemed to have argued with prescience. In early 1995, a few years after the American withdrawal from the Philippines, Chinese structures on Panganiban Mischief Reef were discovered. The reef was inside the 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or just 135 miles away from the coastal state, which is the Philippines. The structures had been enlarged and fortified for seemingly military uses. The occupation of Mischief Reef is unprecedented in post-Cold War history and during the period after the passage of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which both the Philippines and China are signatories.

It was obviously in response to the Chinese challenge on Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity that the Philippines entered into a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US in February 1998. The VFA was deemed to be an implementing agreement to the 1951 MDT. The Supreme Court had upheld the legality of the VFA, cognizant of the fact that it was duly concurred in by the Senate and had been recognized as a treaty by Washington. It should be noted here that the VFA was ratified by the Senate during the incumbency of President Joseph Estrada, one of the so-called “Magnificent 12” senators who in 1991 voted against the ratification of the treaty that would have allowed the retention of the American military facilities in the Philippines for ten years.

Since the entry into force of the VFA, the situation in the Asia-Pacific has become more pronounced and intense because of two main issues: 1) China’s creeping assertiveness and expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea; and 2) The US “pivot” to Asia-Pacific, a policy of rebalancing American forces that envisions the deployment of 60 percent of the US Navy fleet to the region by 2020.

The US “pivot” or rebalance policy was designed to have a network of security or military partnership. It was under this premise that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed by the Philippines and the US in Manila on April 28, 2014. Good for 10 years, EDCA would provide for US forces to rotate in and out of existing Philippine bases for missions ranging from narrowly defensive to humanitarian to training the Philippines’ small, weak military establishment. EDCA is considered an executive agreement and an offshoot of the MDT.

End of Part 2. The conclusion, will come out on Saturday, October 31.

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3 Comments

  1. At stake in the long term are US and Chinese military budgets and spending power. In terms of spending power, China has already closed the gap with defense spending, with an annual budget in excess of $200 billion (compared to US 600 billion). Consider that new recruits in China receive annual salary of around $4000.00 US; compared to $18,000.00 for US recruits. US GDP growth is less than half of Chinas. And while China is plagued by internal corruption, the US is plagued by fraudulent price gouging (one case involved $900,000.00 to mail a washer) which again levels the spending power playing field. The recent and ongoing computer hackings into DoD computers from Inside China, combined with Chinese unique ability to produce hardware cheaper, locally, and in greater numbers – than by an eroded US manufacturing base – means China is getting stronger by the day. The only question is can the United States keep up, and will it’s foreign policy be wise enough to outsmart a griwing Chinese military.

  2. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    25 October 2015

    So many things have “passed under the bridge” since the Philippines thew out the US bases in the Philippines, so that it is now a good time to reflect on the dire situation the Philippines faces in the Western Philippine Sea were China has made “reclamations” and “constructions” on maritime structures which under UCLOS rightly and lawfully belong to the Philippines.

    The fact of the matter is that China has already “invaded” the Philippines–but being the weak country that it is, the Philippines has no way of repulsing the invaders. As a member in good standing of the United Nations, it has opted to resort to the lawful, peaceful, legal, amicable and civilized mode of settling territorial disputes by lodging a case against China with the ITLOS under the aegis of UNCLOS.

    It happens, however, that as high US officials have declared time and time again, the United States has a vested national interest in keeping completely open the Sea Lanes in the disputed area in the South China through which an estimated $5 trillion in sea trade passes. Soon, as announced by US authorities, the US Navy will start patrolling close to the 12-mile limit of those disputed maritime structures which, ominously China has already militarized.

    China has signified that it is opposed to those projected US naval patrols in the disputed area. But the US insists that it has that right to do so in international waters under international law. In the event, it is not altogether outside the realm of possibility that an “accident” whether intentional or not, initiated by either China or the US, could be the trigger for a military confrontation between these two powers.

    When that happens, it is a certainty that the United States will and can count on the Philippines as a reliable and trusted ally.

    MARIANO PATALINJUG
    patalinjugmar@gmail.com

  3. The bottom line question is this: what can we do if the Americans are bent on preserving its number one position in this world, and because of this is determined to keep up the pressure on China in the South China Sea even at our expense?