It seems that the United States never left the Philippines after they vacated Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in 1991. With the combination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and the newly signed Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), US military and political presence is now as firm as it was during the heyday of the old bases here in the country. Let us see how this new equation plays out in the US military presence in our country.
The United States remains entrenched in Philippine affairs; they command access through our island’s seas; retains more than several hundreds of troops on the ground and continues to enjoy privileged status as “visiting” forces and as our “long time friends.” They also conduct regular war games with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and provide intelligence and training in operations. They also conduct various humanitarian and socio-civic military operations throughout the archipelago much like the AFP does.
The physical presence of military bases are but one aspect of the US’ extent of control over Philippine political, economic and military affairs; the rest have been manifested through unequal treaties, agreements and laws implemented to support the US’ “special relationship” with the country.
The US signed the US-RP Military Bases Agreement with the Philippine government on March 14, 1947 and established 23 bases and military facilities in the country. These included Clark Air Base, which covers 26,000 hectares in Central Luzon, and Subic Naval Base, which encompasses more than 60,000 hectares and a port deep enough to hold large warships. These bases have remained under US management until 1991, when the Military Bases Agreement expired and the Philippine Senate responded to widespread calls by most sectors of society to reject the proposal to renew it.
In 1999, the Philippines entered into a bilateral agreement with the US that allows US military forces to conduct joint exercises and other military activities within the Philippines. The Visiting Forces Agreement gave the U.S. military and civilian personnel unhampered access to Philippine territory, including the enjoyment of special rights and privileges.
The VFA was part of the US restructuring of its overseas troop structure into main operating bases, forward operating locations and cooperative security locations or CSLs. CSLs are facilities occupied only for training, exercises and other military interactions with regional partners. Examples of these locations are those where joint Balikatan exercises in the Philippines and Cobra Gold in Thailand are usually held.
Main operating bases (MOB) are US bases with permanently stationed forces and families. Forward operating bases or locations (FOB/FOL) are bases with pre-positioned equipment and a small military support group. These are the same type of bases that are covered by the EDCA where it would be the Philippines that would build or refurbish military structures that US troops can use for free.
Access agreements such as Mutual Logistics Support Agreements (MLSA) or Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreements (ACSA) makes available the use of host nation resources to support the day-to-day and future operational requirements of the US. It also provides support for joint training and exercises, “constabulary” operations, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. These provide the US access to basing and infrastructure necessary for its force projection without the need for permanent presence.
Pres. Obama said “we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific” in their paper entitled “Sustaining US Global Leadership, Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” He seeks to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region” to counter developments along the Western Pacific and East Asia to the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.
Viewed from these pronouncements, the increased troop “deployments” to the Philippines in the guise of training exercises, civil military operations and disaster response would be a logical development. The presence of US military forces in the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea) creates additional friction, which in turn is used by the Philippine government as an excuse to allow longer US presence in the country and its seas. The Spratly Islands dispute and the “threat” of China is used to justify US aggression in the region.
The US has achieved through the VFA, the MLSA and the EDCA their permanent presence in the country without formal military bases. Any time of the year, the US has troops deployed in the country. It has also achieved flexibility since it can use any Philippine facility as allowed under the VFA. It need not maintain large base structures, it only needs to contract out its base operations to the Philippine armed forces.
We as a nation should stand firm in asserting our national sovereignty and independence against the threats from China, Japan and more importantly, the United States. We should start by scrapping all of these one-sided treaties and agreements and find ways to peacefully resolve claims on the Spratly Islands, the West Philippine Sea and maintain genuine peace in the region.