Government officials have taken great care to describe the so-called negotiations between the Philippines and the United States to increase American military presence in the country in soothing constitutionalist or strategic terms. It is what is not being said, however, that worries us.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, for instance, assured the public that the meetings will be “guided by the principles of strict compliance with the Philippine Constitution, laws and jurisprudence; Philippine sovereignty; nonpermanence of US troops in Philippine territory; nonexclusivity of use of facilities by the US side; and mutuality of benefits.” It is important to assert these five principles, if only to emphasize that the Aquino administration has learned its lessons from the fraught history of Philippine-American negotiations.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario made the strategic case. “Our region needs to know that we are steadfastly for peace but that we stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance, to do what is necessary to defend what is ours.” The first two infinitives demonstrate a new emphasis (but an old reality) in Philippine foreign policy; now, in the midst of the ongoing territorial dispute with China, it seems that Manila is openly calling in its markers.
But do these meetings, currently ongoing in Camp Aguinaldo, deserve to be called negotiations? A member of the Philippine panel, Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta of the Department of Foreign Affairs, explained the process in detail. “Activities under this proposed agreement will be covered by our Visiting Forces Agreement. The legal basis for increased rotational presence exists in these two agreements. What we will be negotiating will be modalities and the kinds of activities.”
Maybe. But both the Philippine and American governments are agreed on the need to increase US military presence in the country; both assume that increasing the number of US troops and the opportunities for training for Philippine soldiers side by side those same troops will lead to a more credible defense posture for the Philippines; both recognize that a resurgent China with expansionist ambitions require some kind of pushback—containment in old geopolitical speak. What is there to negotiate?
The notion that the meetings require a “framework agreement” pushes the negotiation metaphor too far; the Americans are not exactly an insurgent group, striving to integrate itself into a sometimes-hostile, sometimes-inhospitable body politic. For one thing, the US government enjoys the advantage of Philippine-wide popularity which continues to elude the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The use of that standby, “terms of reference,” would have sufficed.
Every single official who has spoken on the matter has also taken pains to use a crucial modifier: “rotational.” Thus, Sorreta: “increased rotational presence.” Thus, Del Rosario: greater “rotational presence.” Thus, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte: “The increase, if ever, in the rotational presence …”
The idea, of course, is that rotating the deployment of American soldiers in the Philippines means there is no need for permanent facilities or basing rights, and thus no need for a prolonged and public struggle to draft, debate and ratify a new treaty.
But as we have pointed out more than once, in the last decade or so US military presence in the Philippines has in fact been all but permanent. The soldiers, indeed their units, may come and go, and even the forward deployment sites may be changed, but at any given time there are hundreds of US troops stationed in the Philippines. Government officials must first address this winking violation of the Constitution, for any talk of increased rotational presence to be genuinely credible.
We are also concerned that there is no talk at all, from the government’s side, of an exit strategy, a timetable by which we can measure the supposed improvements in interoperability and training and readiness.
The most important lesson from the complicated history of Philippine-American relations is that the United States has interests of its own, and they never coincide with ours for long. The Obama administration’s so-called pivot to China seems to align with Philippine security needs at the moment—but there is no telling when new conditions will lead the United States to cut, and cut cleanly.