From InterAksyon (Aug 12): Under MDT, VFA legal cover, PH and US set talks on new pact for rotational presence
DFA Secretary del Rosario and Defense Secretary Gazmin preside at a joint briefing on the planned framework agreement covering increased US rotational presence in the country. KRISKEN JONES, INTERAKSYON.COM
Philippine and United States officials open negotiations on August 14 for a new defense agreement to cover the “increased rotational presence” of American troops in the country as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) tries to establish what it calls a minimum credible defense as tensions heighten over China’s aggression in pursuing its maritime territorial claims.
Members of the negotiating panel led by Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Soreta briefed reporters Monday on the upcoming negotiation with the US side, to be led by senior diplomat Eric John, the State Department's senior negotiator for Military Agreements. John was former ambassador to Thailand and held senior positions in the State Department, Soreta said.
On the Philippine panel are Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino, Defense Assistant Secretary Raymond Jose, and Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan.
Earlier, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario assured the public of complete transparency in the negotiations, which has raised questions among some lawmakers and nationalist groups.
The Philippine negotiators elaborated on the framework agreement sought to be reached with the US defense officials, stressing that the legal cover for US presence is already provided by the existing Mutual Defense Treaty between Manila and Washington, now over 60 years old, and the more recent Visiting Forces Agreement. The VFA was ratified by the Philippine Senate several years after the treaty extending the US bases' lease was rejected, paving the way for the dismantling of America's large facilities at Clark and Subic, among others smaller bases. The difference between the two treaties was that the VFA would only allow temporary presence, such as for joint training and operability drills between the forces of the two allies.
New pact guides 'increased rotational presence'
Soreta said Monday the goal is to have a framework agreement setting general parameters and principles to guide the “increased rotational presence” of American troops in the country. “It (framework agreement) will not provide details with respect to the size and shape of each activity mutually approved by the Philippines and the United States,” Sorreta explained.
The framework includes a mechanism mandating annual or regular consultative meetings between officials of the AFP) and the US Pacific Command (USPACOM), to study and asses the deployment of troops.
Soreta explained that as things stand, “it is the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board…" that does these. "I must emphasize that this mechanism is an annual mechanism and it is through this mechanism that the AFP will be able to discern and assess if the proposed activities would be mutually beneficial to both. That is a very important principle that we will insist on in the negotiations for the framework agreement which is the concept of mutuality of benefits. 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.”
Soreta said the agreement will be between the Philippine Department of National Defense and the US Department of Defense of the United States, "and therefore the signatories will be representatives of those departments.”
He stressed that the Philippine panel’s authority is just to negotiate. “There will be a separate authority required from the Office of the President if we recommend that we enter into this agreement. The agreement will be bilateral in nature. There is no language in it right now that contemplates a situation where a third party would accede to the agreement. We have not even thought about it, it’s not likely to happen though,” he said.
The planned agreement has already stirred concern among nationalist groups, who said it could be "worse" than the RP-US bases treaty that expired in 1991.
Lawmakers from both chambers are also wary of the nature, intent and extent of the planned agreement, with Senate President Franklin Drilon and foreign affairs panel acting chairman Ferdinand Marcos Jr. reminding the Executive no basing agreement will be allowed except under a treaty ratified by the Senate.
The framework agreement is separate from the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), according to Soreta. “We are not renegotiating the VFA on this process. We are having consultations on a separate pact.
Incidentally, with the same person in Eric John because he is in charge, we will try to come up with guidelines that will clarify some of the issues particularly those raised by the Supreme Court. So we are not reinventing anything,” he said.
Negotiations for the framework agreement “will not take less than four rounds of negotiations at the minimum,” Soreta added.
Negotiations are counted in terms of rounds. "We can’t really say how many months, how long will it take. The first round will be here on Wednesday morning and it will be at the DND (Department of National Defense) building. We are likely to finish the first round towards the evening,” Soreta said.
Separate agreement better
Batino, Defense undersecretary for Legal and Legislative Affairs and Strategic Concerns (OUSLLASC), said that a separate agreement would be a “greater momentum to strengthening” the relationship between the Philippines and the US.
"In this case, both countries would want to strengthen our alliance through the execution of this agreement. Executing defense and military agreements strengthen alliances. It is the position of the department that a stronger alliance with the US creates a stronger defense posture for the Philippines,” Batino said.
Soreta said the increased rotational presence of the American troops will be institutionalized through the framework agreement. “The contemplated framework agreement will indicate what activities under this increased rotational presence. When you talk about increased rotational presence, it seems a good policy but still abstract.
We’re going to put down on paper what can be done, what can’t be done, where it will be done, where it should not be done. You are going to see eventually modalities like we said parameters and types of activities that will be subject to approval.”
By itself, the framework agreement "does not authorize any activity. It sets the parameters, it’s up to the Philippines to approve each activity and if it feels it is to our benefit and it is not detrimental to our interest or to our constitutional laws then there is that mechanism for approving it,” he added.
The MDT and the VFA, Batino explained, “have already provided the legal framework covering the temporary presence of US forces” in the country as well as the corresponding access to facilities.
The framework agreement is also seen as an opportunity for the AFP to step up its modernization program for, at the very least, a minimum credible defense. In short, buy time for that credible defense to be built up.
“All the activities of the DND and AFP including the modernization program and the forthcoming talks with the US for a possible framework agreement for the implementation of increased rotational presence is to address that concern, to enable the AFP to be able to protect the territory and sovereignty of the country,” Batino said.
If a new defense pact is signed between the two countries, Batino said US naval and air assets would be again be stationed in some parts of military facilities such as in Subic, Zambales, a former US military bases.
“One of the possible benefits for the Philippine government is the possibility of these temporarily deployed equipment to be used by our government for key mission areas such as maritime security, maritime domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. We must emphasize though that the DND and AFP is in the process of procuring modern defense equipment.
However, we believe that those US equipment to which we agreed to be temporarily deployed could supplement the AFP’s capability to perform its functions maritime security and maritime domain awareness,” Batino said.