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Urgently Needed: Transparency in US-Philippine Relations

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Recent developments in US-Philippine relations should evoke concern among citizens of the Philippines and their representatives in Congress.

Washington’s two-point agenda in the Philippines is no secret: to contain China’s ascent to power and refocus its war on terror to South East Asia, which it has tagged as one of the training grounds of Islamic fundamentalism, especially as the American sojourn in the Middle East expires.

Talks between the Philippine government and their American counterparts are all over the news, but information about what is happening, and what is being agreed on are very rare to come by. In fact, just today, the Philippine Daily Inquirer echoed a February 3 report from Bloomberg that the US plans to “rotate” some 4,000 armed personnel through “Australia, Hawaii, Subic Bay and perhaps a smaller base in the Philippines,” leaving their activities here to speculation.  It is the duty of Congress to monitor and review the decisions the administration is making and make Malacanang accountable for these.

Most members of Congress have no knowledge of the plans that the Department of Foreign Affairs discussing with the US. And while members of the legislature don’t expect to have access to all the details, as the people’s representatives in government, they must be provided with a sense of the over-all direction of these plans. Congress must monitor the decisions that the administration is making and the plans with the US that it is executing, and it must be able to make positive contributions to such crucial foreign policy decisions, especially in the face of growing disagreement with the People’s Republic of China over territories in the West Philippine Sea.

It is true that both the House and the Senate are presently preoccupied with the impeachment process, but this is no excuse for not exercising its oversight over foreign affairs.

Many citizens are alarmed by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s announcement that Washington will refocus its military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, with particular interest in the West Philippine Sea. And as the government continues to provide room for more American troops on our soil, we are forced to ask the question: Who is pushing whom? Or who is pulling whom into greater conflict?

The US compromises people’s interest in the West Philippine Sea

To come to the point, the growing military alliance with the United States puts the Philippines in a very precarious situation.

The Philippine claim to the Kalayaan Island Group, despite vehement protests from the People’s Republic of China and their unreasonable claim over the entirety of the Spratlys, has mobilized the whole population and captured the Filipino’s nationalist imagination. The people are very supportive of the government’s claim, and Congress is 100% behind the government in its effort to assert its sovereignty.

However, the Department of Foreign Affairs’(DFA) approach of resorting to the US alliance as the primary option in defending our sovereignty threatens our claim to territories in the West Philippine Sea and might set back our bid for independence and sovereignty from hegemonic powers.

Bringing the US in as a solution of first resort will convert valid territorial disagreements into a super-power conflict. Already, news about US intervention into the China-South East Asia conflict has prompted the right-wing Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times to demand that the Philippines be punished thru economic sanctions. The joint war games between US and Philippine troops in the West Philippine Sea planned for April will definitely fan the ultra-nationalist flames in China and exacerbate this problem. And in that event, territorial disagreements, and finding multilateral solutions to them, will be pushed to the margins.

We should not follow the strategy of opposing a rising power with a declining hegemon. Even as we have criticized China for alarming statements which smack of hegemony, we have always said that the solution lies with our alliance with ASEAN countries and multilateral diplomacy rather than the use of force. What is needed is patient diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy. Only by engaging China through ASEAN will we be able to create a lasting solution.

We have already proved that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is a vital mechanism in developing a solution to the territorial disputes. We have redrawn our baselines, ensuring that geographical boundaries to our territory are in full compliance with international norms and treaties, all of which China refuses to recognize.

Already we have successfully exposed China’s lack of willingness for multilateral negotiations over the Spratlys, and we have claimed the moral high ground in our effort to resolve the territorial disputes diplomatically. Increased US presence in the region threatens to undo all these achievements, and unfortunately for the Filipino people, this is the direction of the DFA’s policies. At the minimum, Congress must investigate America’s plans in the West Philippine Sea and their implications for the Philippines.

Philippines as a pawn in the US anti-terror campaign?

Likewise, Congress must look deeper into the continuation of the US-RP partnership against terrorism, especially in the south. Let us remember that the US’ War on Terror in the Middle East has run its course, and this is precisely the reason why Washington is zeroing in on South East Asia, and “friendly” governments like ours, to continue its campaign.

Was it really Philippine interest that we forwarded when the military launched a US-backed airstrike in Jolo a few days ago, or were we merely executing Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda operatives so that Americans might sleep better at night? After all, the value of fringe benefits the Philippines stands to gain are worth nothing when it is Filipinos and peace in Mindanao that become collateral damage in this fight.

US Ambassador Harry Thomas recently stated that Washington has spent over USD 500M to upgrade Philippine military facilities. We ask: what facilities are those that have been upgraded?  How have they been upgraded?  In this connection, it is important to investigate very alarming reports that a US facility is housed in one of the Philippine military bases around Manila, and that this is being used for rendition of so-called terrorists to third countries. Let us not forget that the CIA’s rendition of people to third countries is universally condemned, and the Philippines must take steps against being used as a staging ground for such illegal practices.  There may be nothing to these reports, but Congress must investigate them.

We must also look into the report that the troops from Okinawa, Japan, will be “on rotation” in the Philippines. Let us remember that the people of Okinawa have been vehemently opposed to the US bases on their island, as Filipinos were when, due to broad public pressure, we successfully closed US military facilities in the early ‘90s. We must be wary of this creeping increase of US military activity in the Philippines, and we should investigate the role of renewed military bases in this plan.

To address all these concerns and ensure that the Executive’s plan is transparent, and that it duly prioritizes Philippine sovereignty and the people’s interest over US attempt to maintain its hegemony, we have to critically assess the elements of this strategy to step up US military presence on Philippine soil. As the people’s representatives, it is Congress’ duty to mount an investigation into these ominous developments in the US-Philippine relations.

*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives representing Akbayan.


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Tags: congress , Diplomacy , Foreign Affairs and International Relations , Philippine-US relations , spratlys , West Philippine Sea



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