From The Diplomat (Dec 11): US-Philippines Struggle to Reach Troop Basing Deal
(by Carl Thayer)
On November 8 Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck the central Philippines with devastating effect. The U.S. offered immediate assistance in disaster relief and the next day U.S. Marines began deploying to the Philippines.
At a press conference on November 25, Philippines Secretary for Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario stated that the U.S. response demonstrated the need for the early conclusion of a new agreement covering the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
Rosario said, “What [we have seen] in Central Philippines as a result of this typhoon, and the assistance provided in terms of relief and rescue operation… demonstrates the need for this framework agreement that we are working out with the United States for increased rotational presence.”
A week later, he reported: “We’re looking to have the remaining issues discussed. As we speak there is a fifth round that’s taking place in the United States. So we’re hopeful that there will be a final conclusion in the signing.”
Currently, U.S. forces rotate through the Philippines under the terms of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement. These include between 500 and 600 troops in the southern Philippines, and U.S. service personnel who participate in three major annual joint exercises, the Balikatan series, Cooperation Afloat and Readiness and Training (CARAT), and the Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex).
The 29th Balikatan exercise was held in April 2013 with a primary focus on humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). Thirty U.S. aircraft, including a squadron of F-18s, three naval ships and 8,000 Filipino and American troops took part.
Del Rosario announced at the start of the exercise that the Philippines needed to secure its borders and protect its territorial integrity. He said Balikatan was not only an important contribution to prepare U.S. and Philippine armed forces to work together but also to build the Philippines’ own capacity to defend itself. He added that it was vital for the Philippines to have more U.S. forces rotate throughout the year and not just when planned exercises were being held.
Back in April of this year, with tensions running high on Korean peninsula, del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin announced that the Philippines was prepared to allow U.S. forces to use Philippine bases in the event of war in Korea. They argued that the Mutual Defense Treaty was reciprocal, it called on the U.S. to defend Philippines while the Philippines had an obligation to assist the U.S.
Balikatan 2013 was followed by four rounds of bilateral discussions on a framework agreement for an increased US military rotational presence. At the first round, held in Manila from August 13-14, discussion focused on a detailed legal agreement covering an increased temporary rotational presence involving U.S. ships, aircraft, Marines and the use of Philippine military facilities, including Subic Bay.
Immediately following the first round, in a significant development, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Emmanuel Bautista, Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, issued a Joint Vision Statement for Security Cooperation during talks in Washington. The Joint Vision Statement was billed as a partnership for the twenty-first century.
The Joint Statement declared: “We expect a robust, balanced and responsive partnership…[through] mutually beneficial bilateral military training exercises and operations, provided by an increased rotational and temporary presence of US military forces operating from Armed Forces of the Philippines-controlled facilities.”
With respect to maritime disputes, the Joint Statement agreed to resolve them through direct talks and through multilateral venues such as ASEAN, “in a manner that protects the interests of all who value unimpeded commerce transiting through the maritime domain, while deterring those who would restrict it or act in a manner that might place it at risk.”
The Philippines and the U.S. agreed to establish a “joint force posture that assures freedom of navigation and provides for common defense of each nation’s sovereign territory.”
The second round of bilateral talks were held in Manila on August 30 during the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. One reported sticking point is the length of the deal; the U.S. suggested a ten to twenty year period while the Philippines preferred a much shorter length of time.
The third round was held in Washington, DC from September 13-18. The draft framework agreement under discussion reportedly included five provisions: scope; agreed installations/AFP facilities; prepositioning of defense equipment, supplies, and materiel; ownership; and security.
At fourth round, held on October 3, the talks quickly reached an impasse over the issue of Philippines access to temporary facilities to be built by the U.S. to support its rotational forces and joint use of U.S. military equipment.
According to Defense Secretary Gazmin, the talks foundered on U.S. resistance to full Philippines control and access the temporary facilities. According to Gazmin, “we want access to both [US constructed temporary facilities]. It should not be limited to them. We want equal opportunity and equal access.”
If the fifth round of bilateral negotiations prove successful, it is likely that the U.S. rotational presence in the Philippines will pick up markedly in 2014. In the meantime, both sides are currently planning for the Balikatan 2014 exercise series.
[Carl Thayer is Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales and Director of Thayer Consultancy. He is a Southeast Asia regional specialist who taught at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Australian Command and Staff College, and Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College.]
Imagine, more than one year, to be exact from July 2012 to December 2013, had been spent by the parties to overcome their divergent positions leading to the final inking of the agreement; and if not for the excellent facilitation of the Malaysian facilitator, Tengku Dato’ Ab’Ghafar bin Tengku Mohammed, the outcome would not end well. This was not known until the last minutes of the last day of the 42nd GPH-MILF Exploratory Talks in Kuala Lumpur on December 8. Actually, the talks were set for four days only, but the parties have to extend for one more day hoping to settle the last hitches of the Annex.
Several factors contributed to the signing of this Annex. First, the parties are committed to finish and sign this agreement without delay, but the MILF would not sacrifice quality of the agreement with the need to finish it. To reinforce their commitment, President Benigno Aquino III sent two of his most trusted cabinet members, Sec. Teresita “Ging” Deles and Edwin Lacierda, to back up and give moral support to the GPH peace panel. The MILF reciprocated by also sending three of its most senior members to join the MILF peace delegation. Second, the two peace panels are evenly matched, so that what determined the outcome of their verbal tussle is their focus to solve the Bangsamoro Question anchored on the facts of history and the reality of the present. These are added-on factors to the “Straight Path policy” of President Aquino and the consistency and pragmatism of the MILF. Third, the two parties, in no small way, listen to the wisdom of the international community, represented in a modest way in the presence of the International Contact Group (ICG) whose membership comes from Turkey, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia (for states) and Muhammadiyah, Conciliation Resources (CR), Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CGD), and now Community of Saint’Egidio, replacing The Asia Foundation (TAF), for the international non-government organizations (INGO). And fourth, the prodding and push exerted by the friends of the peace process way back home, including civil society organizations (CSOs) and various stakeholders contributed a lot to this success.
Modesty aside, the Annex on Power-sharing is a class of its own. It can be open for scrutiny and we are optimistic that honest minds will have difficulty criticizing it. It is not a perfect agreement, because there had never been a perfect agreement in all times. It can only be surpassed when the agreement is about granting independence to the Bangsamoro, which has never been part of the agenda since 1997. The single agenda agreed by the parties was and still is: “How to solve the Bangsamoro Problem,” now refined into “Question”.
For the fault-finders, however, they are the breed that never sees good things in life, because they see the world as ugly and unfit for living. In their refined nature, they are the idealists whose utopian state would never happen, because there is no such thing, except in the mind. This is a world of imperfection, and as such, one has to struggle in all spheres of life not to achieve utopian perfection in this life but to install justice to every collective human endeavor and relationship. The Annex on Power-Sharing is one such product of struggle – it resonates with justice, not create a world of illusion that is merely confined to the fantasy of the imagination.