Philippines and U.S. discuss “increased rotational presence” of U.S. military in the Philippines

By Aurea Calica (The Philippine Star)

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines and the United States begin talks tomorrow to increase the rotational presence of American troops in the country, including bigger deployment of aircraft, ships, supplies and troops for humanitarian and maritime security operations.

Malacañang said the negotiations would be within the parameters of the Constitution as well as of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951.

The Philippines and its former colonizer are gearing up for an expanded military cooperation amid China’s growing aggressiveness in staking its claims over vast areas in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

“This week, diplomacy and defense will once again intersect to secure our nation. 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,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters yesterday at Camp Aguinaldo.

“We are steadfastly for peace but we are ready to tap any resource and call on any alliance to do what is necessary to defend what is ours,” he said.

“Transparency is extremely important in these negotiations. Our people need to know that our laws are observed and our interests are protected at all times,” the DFA chief said.
In a press briefing, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said whatever is agreed upon after the negotiations would no longer need Senate ratification.

“However, for purposes of transparency, the panel will be briefing congressional leaders on the status of negotiations,” Lacierda said.

He said the decision to allow increased rotational presence of US troops was based on an evaluation of the situation by the DFA and the Department of National Defense (DND). He squelched insinuations that the US stands to benefit more from such an arrangement.

“We have an interest here also. We act according to what is in our best national interest. 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,” he said.

Asked about the possibility that this week’s negotiations would enrage China, Lacierda said: “That is their concern, not ours.”

He said that while the DFA and the DND had secured permission from President Aquino to start the negotiations, the Palace will not be directly involved in the talks.

The Philippine negotiating panel is composed of Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta, Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III and Defense Assistant Secretary Raymund Quilop.

Eric John, senior negotiator for military agreements of the State Department, leads the US panel.

Not a basing deal

“It’s not a basing agreement,” said Sorreta, assistant secretary for American affairs and spokesman for the four-member negotiating team, referring to the objective of the negotiations.

The Philippines kicked out US military bases in 1992 and years later allowed the return of American troops for training and joint exercises.

The new deal will expand these activities.

Sorreta insisted the new deal would not give US forces exclusive use of local facilities or a permanent presence.

“We are engaging in this exercise of negotiations not to please the United States, but in pursuit of our own interests,” Sorreta said. “We are certainly for peace, but we are not for appeasement.”

Sorreta said the first round of talks would be held from morning to evening in the DND office at Camp Aguinaldo.

He did not give deadlines but said both panels are likely to engage in four rounds of talks before an agreement is reached.

“There are things that we can do under the existing agreements we have but we have a policy now with the United States on increased rotational presence and we want to institutionalize it,” Sorreta said. He declined to elaborate on the activities to be covered by any new agreement.

Panel member Batino clarified that any agreement would not cover specifics like the number of US troops or the equipment to be deployed. Such details, Batino said, would be determined by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Pacific Command.

“The framework agreement will only provide general parameters and principles under which the increased rotational presence will be implemented,” he said.

“It’s up to the Philippines to approve each activity, if it feels it is to our benefit and it is not detrimental to our interest or to our constitutional laws.”

Guiding principles

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said sovereignty, compliance with Philippine laws, and non-exclusive use of facilities by the US would be the negotiating panel’s “guiding principles.”

“It is in the interest of further deepening cooperation between our countries that we are engaging each other as regards increased rotational presence,” Gazmin said.

“This will enable the Philippines and the US to conduct activities such as bilateral exercises, including the pre-positioning of equipment for disaster response and development of Philippine facilities, among others,” he added.

Del Rosario, for his part, said the Philippine negotiators had been given “parameters that require them to ensure that our Constitution and laws are fully respected,” and had been tasked “to ensure that Philippine interests are preserved and promoted.”

“If we are to secure our people and our nation, we would need to strengthen both diplomacy and defense. Some time ago, we developed a policy and arrived at an understanding with the United States, our treaty ally, on increased rotational presence,” he added.

He said that by negotiating for increased US rotational military presence, the Philippines seeks to bring to greater heights its historic strategic relations with a key partner.

“By highlighting our treaty commitments under our Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, we serve to keep our region stable and secure,” he said.

He also said that by agreeing to bigger US presence, the Philippines would be able to realize military modernization “even before we are able to purchase the necessary defense systems.”

He said such an arrangement would also enhance the country’s deterrent capability as well as boost maritime defense and security “even before we have ships and aircraft that we need.”

Furthermore, the country’s security forces will have better training in handling and operating state-of-the-art military equipment “even before we have the advanced hardware we wish for.”

“And equally important, our ability to provide our people and the region with timely and responsive humanitarian and disaster relief will be vastly improved,” he said.

The allies have been in talks since 2011, even before President Barack Obama announced his administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy as Washington withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These negotiations will lead to incremental security benefits and cooperation rather than a fundamental shift in the regional military balance of power,” Patrick Cronin, of the US-based Center for a New American Security, told Reuters. “These talks are an important symbol of a refashioned alliance.”

Last year, the US announced plans to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020. The US naval assets would be realigned from a roughly 50-50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60-40 split between those oceans.

The US has also increased its military aid to the Philippines from $30 million next fiscal year to about $50 million, said to be the highest level since 2000.

Lawmakers appeal for caution

As the country begins to negotiate for an expanded rotational presence of US troops, Senate President Franklin Drilon cautioned Philippine negotiators against going beyond the limits of the Constitution.

“This is my position, we have a constitutional requirement, any basing agreement must be by virtue of a treaty, duly ratified by the Senate. Therefore, we must look into the facts of this presence. If it constitutes basing, then it cannot be done except under a treaty,” Drilon said.

“They can negotiate, we will not stand in the way. But if it a basing agreement, we will call them to task. But we will not pre-audit them, so to speak,” the Senate president said.

“They know the boundaries of the Constitution and therefore, when they craft the agreement, they must consider the constitutional boundaries,” Drilon said.

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a member of the Senate committee on foreign relations, said the DFA and the DND should brief the Senate on what they really are aiming for in negotiating for an increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines.

“We don’t know exactly what the arrangements are, how frequent? We want to know because it could be bases under another name,” said Marcos. “We have to examine this.”

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, chair of the Senate committee on national defense, slammed Del Rosario for hyping up what could have been just an “operational matter” for the military.

“I think it should not be hyped. This might not even need the consent of the Senate. I don’t know why Secretary Del Rosario is drawing attention to himself,” Trillanes said.

He stressed that increasing the rotational presence of US troops should not be linked to current security threats. He said such an arrangement with the US military should be seen in the context of the need to better train, prepare, and equip Philippine forces.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said that while House leaders are supportive of the coming negotiations, they want DFA and US officials to brief them on the extent and scope of the talks. He said he had a brief talk with Del Rosario on the matter.

“It doesn’t ask Congress to do anything… and this idea of theirs is more of a coordination of their forces countenanced by existing treaties with US,” Belmonte told reporters.

“Right now we would very much want to find out where this is all coming from,” Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez said. “I think Congress would very much like to see and hear who is really asking for this and for what extended purpose, we just like to know the details.” –With Pia Lee-Brago, Alexis Romero, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero

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