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Global Geopolitics

Philippines Bases Hopes on US, Controversially

MANILA, May 1 2014 (IPS) - Amid growing uncertainties over U.S. commitment to Asia, as multiple flashpoints in Eastern Europe and the Middle East continue to consume global attention, President Barack Obama took a long-awaited trip (Apr. 23-29) to Asia, where he visited leading allies in North- and Southeast Asia.

The highlight of Obama’s Asia trip was, however, the formalisation of a new basing agreement in the Philippines, which gave much-needed momentum to Washington’s so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. For the Philippine government, it marked an important step towards greater U.S.-Philippine defence cooperation amid growing security challenges in the region.

Obama made it clear that Washington takes no position over the sovereignty of the disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Recent months have seen a significant increase in territorial tensions between China and its neighbours, especially the Philippines. The late-March decision of the Philippines to file an arbitration case before a United Nations (UN) Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague has infuriated China, which has threatened sanctions and vehemently opposed the “internationalisation” of what it considers an exclusively bilateral territorial dispute. As a result, the Philippines is confronting the real prospect of a direct military confrontation with China.

Without a minimum deterrence capability, the Philippines has opted for deeper defence cooperation with and military support from its principle ally, the U.S. No wonder, Manila has warmly welcomed the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, which many believe is a thinly-veiled attempt at constraining China’s territorial assertiveness in the Pacific theatre.

To counter the growing threat from China, which recently imposed a blockade on a Filipino maritime detachment in the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippines, in recent months, expedited the negotiation of a new security pact with the U.S., the so-called Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Obama’s visit to Manila (Apr. 28-29) coincided with the formal signing of the EDCA, which grants the U.S. military rotational access to Philippine bases in Subic and Clark. In exchange, the Philippines is poised to benefit from expanded military assistance from and jointmilitary exercises with the U.S.

Filipino officials were quick to frame the latest defence agreement as a landmark deal, reflecting the long-standing alliance between the two countries. But critics claim that the new agreement disproportionately favours the U.S., lacks transparency, and may be in violation of the Philippines’ constitutional restrictions on the establishment of permanent foreign bases on Philippine soil.

“This agreement, concluded after intensive and comprehensive negotiations over the course of nearly two years, marks a milestone in our shared history as enduring treaty allies,” stated Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, a staunch advocate of deeper U.S.-Philippine military alliance. “With the EDCA, the Philippines and the United States as sovereign allies have written a new chapter for our modern and mature partnership, firmly grounded on deeply-held democratic values, common interests and shared aspirations.”

Influential political figures such as Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, chairman of the Philippines Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, were, however, unconvinced. In an interview with Al Jazeera, she argued that the latest security pact only provides “marginal advantages” for the Philippines, while granting the U.S. inexpensive access to foreign military bases, which, in effect, would make “the Philippines sound as if [it were] a satellite ally of America.”

Others like former Senator Joker Arroyo deplored the lack of consultations with legislators and concerned citizens ahead of the signing of the EDCA. “[The government] rushed to sign the EDCA as a gift to President Obama…No one, but no one was consulted about its constitutionality or participated in its preparation,” lamented Arroyo, among the senators who voted for the abrogation of U.S. military bases in the Philippines back in 1991. “What did the Philippines get out of the Obama visit? Zero. Analyse it.”

Both Defensor-Santiago and Arroyo, among other legal experts, contend that the new security pact should have required the ratification of the Philippine Senate (the legislative upper-house) to ensure its compliance with the Philippine constitution and the country’s national interest. For many Filipinos, especially progressives and members of the intelligentsia, EDCA represents a significant regression in the Philippines’ age-old attempt to become a more independent, self-reliant country.

As an archipelagic country, the Philippines has a disproportionately small navy and coast guard force, which deprives it of credibly defending the country’s maritime territorial claims. A combination of massive corruption, lack of strategic foresight, and continued focus on domestic insurgency has undermined the Philippines’ efforts at building a fully-functioning, modern military.

As a result, the Philippines has continued to rely on American military support to deal with both security as well as humanitarian challenges. No wonder, latest surveys suggest that the absolute majority of the Filipinos continue to regard the U.S. with high levels of trust and respect.

Earlier in his trip, Obama went the extra mile to reassure Japan that the U.S. will stand by its ally if a military confrontation were to erupt over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

During his visit to Manila, however, Obama carefully avoided making a similar commitment, and instead called for the Philippines to seek a diplomatic compromise with China in accordance with international law. He made it clear that Washington takes no position over the sovereignty of the disputed territories in the South China Sea.

“We believe that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected,” said Obama in his speech before the Philippine armed forces. “We believe that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded. We believe that disputes must be resolved peacefully and not by intimidation or force.”

Obama’s latest trip deepened Washington’s strategic footprint in Asia, but also demonstrated its unwillingness to militarily confront China over the South China Sea disputes. As a result, the Philippines will have to contemplate alternative diplomatic strategies to avoid an outright confrontation with China and preserve its territorial integrity.

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