Once again, those reassuring words: “The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines,” said American Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his visit to Manila last week. What the United States has in mind is a “new model of military to military cooperation, similar to what it has forged with Singapore and Australia.”
It’s a smooth comparison, but quite a disingenuous one. Both countries have more than adequately equipped military forces, so any arrangement with the United States for increased access to local facilities—or, in Australia’s case, joint training with US Marines—is, at best, a token enhancement of their defense capability, and more of a vehicle to project a concerted front against China’s muscle-flexing in the region. More to the point, neither of those countries labors under the complicated history and fraught relations with the United States that the Philippines is heir to, especially with regard to American military bases and their problematic legacy to the country.
On closer look, the “new model of military cooperation” that Hagel is invoking is, in fact, quite old. The “rotational approach” the US and Philippine governments have repeatedly used to describe the new arrangement they have in mind is basically the same setup that currently governs the US military forces present in the country under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), under which any number of US soldiers are stationed in the Philippines on a “temporary” basis.
But as one of this paper’s previous editorials had pointed out, “the temporary nature of their visit masks the fact that US forces (of various strengths, in different locations) have been present in the Philippines every single day since 2002. In other words, the ‘visiting’ part of the VFA applies only in a nominal sense—to the individual American soldiers temporarily deployed in the Philippines. US military presence in the country, however, is as good, or as bad, as permanent.”
What looks set to change this time around is not the rotational presence of US troops per se, but the even greater access they would now have to Philippine facilities. According to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, it’s not just the former US naval base in Subic, Zambales, that’s on the table for available use by the US military under the “enhanced” framework agreement being hammered out between the two countries. “Subic is one of the facilities mentioned as for US forces to access. As soon as the framework agreement is complete, we will provide the necessary access to all these facilities; and this is not limited only to Subic but to Philippine military facilities, if necessary.”
It’s true that the Philippines is vulnerable militarily and would need all the help it can get to cobble together a minimum credible defense posture against China’s maritime aggressions. But there is something quite unseemly, too, about Gazmin’s indiscreet, overeager announcement which throws open the doors even wider to American troops and vessels, way before any firm details about the framework agreement has been publicized. At the very least, it undermines the Philippine position, underscoring its weak bargaining status in the negotiations between the two countries—a disposition that the United States, with its own interests to protect and advance, would, again, only be too willing to exploit.
One only has to look at recent Philippine-American history to know that closer military ties with the United States can bring with it as many problems as there are benefits. For decades, the country has had to grapple with a conflicted sense of sovereignty while the largest US bases outside the American mainland loomed over the Philippine political landscape. Their toxic legacy remains—in the unfinished cleanup of the bases’ physical environment, in the number of unresolved crimes by US military personnel against Filipino civilians, in the lopsided terms of the VFA, which now threatens to become even more uneven with the Philippines seemingly too eager to grant American forces easier access to many more Philippine facilities across the archipelago.
Before Gazmin publicly and unilaterally commits the Philippines to any new military arrangement with the United States, the public must first be apprised of the nuts and bolts of the framework agreement, and the Senate has to ratify it after a comprehensive and transparent discussion of its merits. The Philippines does need help, but precisely for that reason, it must gather support for its position with greater care and caution, lest it finds itself outclassed again—out of the frying pan and into the fire.