There’s the Rub

Hole in the head


It’s one of the sublime ironies of this magic-realist country that the only time we did not have a US military presence here was during Fidel Ramos’ rule. Which was from 1992 to 1998, the period shortly after the Magnificent 12 booted out the US bases in 1991 and Erap’s Senate approved the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1999. Ramos, of course, was a general and a graduate of West Point.

The only time we did not have a US military presence in this country was when we had an ex-military man and West Pointer for president. How’s that for grand irony?

That was the only hiatus, or break, in the long, unrelenting, and—it now looks—unending US military presence in this country. The senators’ excuse in approving the VFA was that unlike the bases agreement, it did not call for basing rights. And the American troops would only be, as the “V” in VFA indicated, visitors anyway.

In fact they became temporary residents only in the same way that the squatters that occupy vacant lots beside abandoned buildings and/or government offices are temporary residents. They became visitors only in the sense that like relatives in need that have roosted in our nests for years and cannot be evicted by not-very-subtle complaints, or parinig, are visitors. That’s what the visiting American forces have done. For the cost of a war game or two every so often, they’ve become permanent fixtures of this place.

It’s good to remember that in light of Malacañang’s position, as stated by Edwin Lacierda, that increased US military presence does not require Senate approval because it is covered by, or can be subsumed under, the VFA. It’s just an added detail. Antonio Trillanes does not dispute the point. What he disputes in fact is the opposite, which is that Albert del Rosario is making “a big deal” out of it, making a foreign affairs issue out of a “purely defense” one. It’s all of a piece, he says, with Del Rosario’s penchant for being a “war freak,” making our territorial dispute with China the linchpin of “increased rotational presence” when it should really just be a routine military upgrading on our part, outside the context of any crisis.

Both are wrong.

While I agree with Trillanes in that Del Rosario has been rattling his toy saber against China, if not indeed being a war freak, in the belief that America has his back, I do think “increased rotational presence” is one very big deal. I do think it needs Senate approval. I do think it needs the people’s approval. In fact, I do think it should be disputed by every Filipino who has toiled to see an end to interminable American military presence in this country.

Though of course Del Rosario’s saber-rattling is bad enough in itself. It adds insult to injury. It reestablishes our image or identity before the world, or before Asia during the Asian Century, of being little more than Lone Ranger’s Tonto. A presumably independent nation that is perfectly willing not just to do America’s bidding but also what America wants even before it bids it. America has begun to shift its focus from the Middle East to Asia. Whether China’s territorial bullying happened or not, America would have been badgering us by hook or by crook, by carrot or by stick, to provide haven to its ships and troops. We just did it the favor of inviting it in to reenact Bataan before it could insinuate it.

And we call Cambodia a Chinese lackey. What does this make us?

How can “increased rotational presence” be incorporated within the framework of the VFA? The VFA itself is a betrayal of the spirit of 1991. There has been nothing temporary about the visiting forces. There has been nothing guest-like about the visitors—or they are temporary guests only in the sense that the Pinoy TNTs, or illegals, in America are temporary guests there. By itself, the VFA already suggests the new arrangement will be a worse version of it.

But increased American “rotational military presence” is much more than the VFA. Not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. At the very least, it is happening precisely at a time when we do have a problem—along with other Southeast Asian countries—with China. Trillanes may think that “increased rotational presence” should have nothing to do with any crisis, but the fact is that there is such a crisis and it is being used as the justification for it. In fact, it is the sole justification for it: Without it, this country would protest it outright. Without it, this country would reject it outright.

At the very most, it is happening precisely at a time when America is moving its forces to Asia, when America means to challenge the Chinese ascent in Asia, when America means to reaffirm that it remains top dog in Asia. A development that clearly indicates that the US military presence in the Philippines will be far more permanent, far more prodigious, and far more pervasive than it has been since it lost its bases here by an act of God and the Filipinos, by an act of the Senate and Pinatubo.

But of course it is a foreign affairs issue. No, more than that, it is a national affairs issue, it is a life-and-death issue. Where do Del Rosario and Voltaire Gazmin get off thinking they’ll be in control after they’ve signed the agreement with the Americans? Hell, where do they get off thinking they’re in control even now? The implications of what they’re doing are horribly unpleasant. They’re overseeing our slide back to the way things were during Clark and Subic, minus the physical bases themselves. They’re supervising our descent back to the days of “special relations” when we thought of ourselves as America’s right arm in Asia.

It’s almost silly to say that this needs congressional approval, this needs the people’s approval.

Who wants a hole in the head?

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Tags: China , Conrado de Quiros , defense , Foreign Affairs and International Relations , Military , opinion , Philippine-American relations , Philippines , There’s the Rub , US , VFA , Visiting Forces Agreement

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