The Constitution does not, in fact, impose an absolute ban on foreign military bases in the Philippines. Just the same, we should all reject the idea of American or other troops being based permanently in the country.
Last week, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin denied the Reuters report suggesting that the Philippine government will build new bases or facilities for troops from defense partners such as the United States and Japan. “Let me clarify issues. No, we are not going to construct bases. We will be accepting access,” Gazmin said.
We do not doubt that, as Gazmin told reporters, the terms of greater access to the country’s existing military bases (which now include portions of the old American naval base in Subic Bay and the old American airbase in Clark) will be drafted according to constitutional principles. But whether the reality will reflect the proposed legal language is another thing altogether.
In the Constitution’s transitory provisions, we read: “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate”—and Section 25 of Article XVIII continues by specifying two enabling conditions: ratification of the treaty in a national referendum “when the Congress so requires,” and recognition of the treaty as treaty “by the other contracting State.”
The exception clause is why we have the controversial 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, which governs the conduct of US military forces “visiting” the Philippines.
But 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.
The costs and benefits of an arrangement like this can be debated at length, but it is only right to ask—given exactly our experience with the VFA in the last decade—whether Gazmin’s idea of allowing foreign allies greater access to existing military bases will not, in fact, turn out to be “access-only” only in name, and “foreign bases” in reality.
We say Gazmin’s idea, but we understand that the greater-access policy represents the thinking of President Aquino and his Cabinet. Given China’s irresponsible saber-rattling over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Aquino government is not only asserting its position in diplomatic circles or legal forums, but it is bolstering alliances with its defense partners.
Last week’s meeting between the Philippine and Japanese defense ministers, the first in a decade, was by all accounts a successful one. We can expect more such high-level meetings with other countries worried by increasing Chinese aggression, and perhaps even joint military exercises with those countries which supported the Philippines during last year’s standoff in Panatag Shoal.
A decision to host allied military forces inside Philippine bases, however, should not be taken lightly; meetings and supply arrangements and joint exercises can all be justified as the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ belated attempts at capacity-building. Allowing foreign troops from allies with a stake in the ongoing South China Sea disputes to operate in and—the crucial difference—from Philippine military bases is much harder to rationalize.
And the reality is, it will likely be American troops who will be deployed, “temporarily,” in those bases. The United States has the reach, the experience, above all the ambition, to make full use of an opportunity like the greater-access plan.
Has enough time passed since we closed the last US military base in the country in 1991 for us to say that the Philippines and especially its ruling classes have finally been weaned off a dangerous overdependence on the United States? The greater-access idea suggests that the answer is no.
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