Monday, December 2, 2013

U.S. seeking rotational presence in PH, not new bases - new envoy

From InterAksyon (Dec 2): U.S. seeking rotational presence in PH, not new bases - new envoy

President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III accepts the credentials of United States of America Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg during the Presentation of Credentials at the Music Room of MalacaƱang on Monday (Dec. 2, 2013). (Photo by: Marcelino Pascua/MalacaƱang Photo Bureau/PNA)

Washington’s new envoy to the Philippines on Monday said the United States has no intention of reopening military bases in the Philippines but expressed hope for a swift conclusion of a framework agreement that would allow a non-permanent rotational presence of U.S. soldiers in the country.

“Let me say clearly though, we’re not talking about bases or any kind of new bases for the United States,” Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a press conference after presenting his credentials to President Benigno S. Aquino III in Malacanang.

Philippine and U.S. panels are currently negotiating for an accord that will allow an increased rotational presence of American troops amid a backdrop of mounting territorial rift between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea. Manila has adopted the name West Philippine Sea for the disputed body of water, which has been the site of armed confrontations among claimants that also include Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

As China boldly asserts claim over the resource-rich waters, Philippine government officials said an expanded U.S. military presence can help its cash-strapped military defend the Philippines’ territory as it builds up its defense capability.

Goldberg believes that the agreement would also enhance disaster response cooperation between the two countries as demonstrated by Washington’s rapid response in the aftermath of super typhoon Yolanda that killed thousands in the Visayas region on Nov. 8.

“It’s important for the Philippines, I think, as we saw with the super typhoon ‘Yolanda’, to have even a greater ability to provide for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The ability to have that a little bit faster and, more efficiently, we’ll always be of help,” Goldberg said.

Manila has turned to the U.S., Australia, Japan and other western allies in an ongoing effort to modernize its military -- among the weakest in the Asian region -- and strengthen its capability to guard and defend its territory, including Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea that is being claimed nearly in its entirety by China.

The new accord between Manila and Washington came in the heels of Washington’s "Asian pivot" after its heavy military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“This is about our capacity to help the Philippine government and military as it advances in many areas in its own interests,” Goldberg said. “There are reasons to build minimal defense capability and maritime defense awareness.That will come with a framework agreement.”

For decades, the U.S. maintained large military bases in Clark, Pampanga and Subic Bay in Olongapo, Zambales until Philippine lawmakers voted to close it down in 1991.

But since 2002, about 500 to 600 American troops have been staying in Philippine military camps in southern Mindanao to help train and provide intelligence information to Filipino soldiers, who are fighting violent Muslim groups like the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiyah.

The American presence is allowed under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, which was ratified by the Senate to govern the temporary stay of U.S. forces for joint trainings with their Philippine military counterparts.

The U.S. is not a party to the territorial row but has declared that it is in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation and that conflicts are resolved peacefully.

“I think it’s inherently in the interest of both to move forward and I hope it will happen as soon as possible,” Goldberg said.

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