Friday, March 14, 2014

Defense deal closed; RP allows US forces access to military bases

From the Daily Tribune (Mar 15): Defense deal closed; RP allows US forces access to military bases

The Philippine government yesterday said a deal to allow a greater US military presence in its territory could be signed next month, in a timely defense boost amid a worsening territorial row with China.

There was optimism the pact could be secured ahead of US President Barack Obama’s April visit to Manila after the two sides agreed on a contentious issue that would see US forces build “structures” on their hosts military bases,Defense officials said.

“Discussions in the sixth round were substantive and productive, and significant progress was made,” Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino told reporters following the latest round of talks in Washington last week.

The panel negotiating for enhanced defense cooperation with Washington, previously known as increased rotational presence of US military in the country, assured that local authorities will also have access to US facilities to be set up under the agreement.

Batino, at the same time, stressed the agreement, if reached, will not need Senate approval.

He explained that the agreement would fall as an implementing document of the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

“The Philippine panel’s position is that this is an implementing document of the MDT and the VFA which have already been concurred in by our Senate in separate instances and therefore, this being our belief, that it is merely an implementing agreement and will not require the Senate concurrence, and therefore will not have to pass through the Senate for its concurrence,” Batino said.

He added that while negotiations are still fluid, meaning changes can happen anytime, between the two parties, access to US facilities by Philippine authorities has been primordial concern for the panel.

“Though we all know the fluidity which characterizes all negotiations, it is safe to say that there will be language that will provide that the Philippine authorities would have access to the areas provided to the US armed forces,” Batino said.

He emphasized that the Philippine panel stand is to have all temporary structures to be set up by the US should be within camps of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

“That is the direction of the Philippine panel that all structures, all activities that would relate to the implementation that this new agreement would be confined primarily within AFP facilities,” Batino said.

The Philippine panel has previously stressed there will be no permanent bases to be set up under the agreement now being negotiated.

Asked if the agreement would be ready for signing by the time US President Barrack Obama visits the country in April, Batino replied “the priority task of the panel is to negotiate an agreement, to come up with an agreement that will serve the national interest and to make sure that this agreement will be compliant with Philippine Constitution and laws, this is what we are focusing (on).”

But another panel member, Ambassador Lourdes Yparaguirre, admitted they will be happy to see the agreement signed before Obama’s arrival.

“If the negotiations are successfully concluded that happens before the arrival of President Obama then we will be happy of course but at the same time we are aware that these types of negotiations do take time,” she said.

Ambassador Eduardo Malaya, who is also member of the panel, stressed the issue on access is assured and that discussions are centered more on the security aspect.

“The areas to be shared are areas within existing Philippine military bases or facilities so these areas are within those bases so in essence access is assured. It could be said that access is a given, what is being discussed is the sharing of responsibilities with respect to security,” he stressed.

“I think at this time both panels have reached agreement on language and we would be able to hammer down the specifics as to who would be securing what area. But as a concept access is assure this being within Philippine military bases and also the right of the base commander to have access to specific area will be shared with them is, have already been agreed in principle by both panels,” Malaya added.

He said the agreement would be shorter than 20 years.

He also expressed belief that the agreement, if reached, would be signed by Cabinet members and other dignitaries, not by President Aquino and Obama.

However, existing US facilities inside AFP installations like Camp Aguinaldo and in Zamboanga City, where the US-Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines is maintaining presence, are not that accessible to Filipino troops.

There were instances before that even ranking AFP officers were barred from entering US facilities in Zamboanga City.

Meanwhile, barely a week after a United States guided-missile cruiser arrived in Manila for a routine port call, another US military vessel will be coming next week for similar call.

USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet, is scheduled to arrive at the Manila South Harbor on March 18 for a four-day routine port call.

In a statement, the US Embassy said the goodwill visit highlights the strong historic, community and military connections between Washington and Manila.

The USS Blue Ridge and the 7th Fleet staff are homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, and are responsible for US Navy operations from the International Dateline west to the India and Pakistan border.

The embassy said USS Blue Ridge will be open for media tour upon its arrival.

Only last Sunday, USS Cowpens (CG-63), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser arrived in Manila for a routine port call that highlights the strong historic and military connections between the Philippines and US.

The frequent US port calls are happening amid the continuing tension between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea, particularly at Ayungin Shoal where Philippine ships were blocked by Chinese coast guard from delivering supplies to Filipino troops stationed in the area.

The Philippine military was forced to drop supplies to the troops, using Islander aircraft, to prevent them from starving.

Last Jan. 27, Chinese coast guard harassed Filipino fishermen trying to venture into Panatag Shoal, locally known as Bajo de Masinloc which is a rich fishing ground.
The Chinese fired water cannon to drive away the local fishermen.

Philippine authorities filed another diplomatic protest against China but was turned down by Beijing.

Despite the incident, the Philippine government remained committed to resolve the dispute through international arbitration before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos).

Earlier, visiting US Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert said the US is committed to assisting the Philippines in case of China invasion of Philippine territories.

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