US troops: A pattern of atrocities

Photo from LGBTQ Nation
Photo from LGBTQ Nation

For Filipino and American officials, “there can’t be a worse timing” in the murder of Jennifer Laude allegedly by a US Marine, later identified as Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton. The Philippines and the US are discussing the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed early this year. It will allow the US to build more military bases and station more troops in the Philippines through so-called “agreed locations”. But the possible involvement of a US Marine in a heinous crime will make the already controversial EDCA contentious even more.

Olongapo City, where Laude was brutally killed, is among EDCA’s expected “agreed locations”. In less than a decade, Olongapo has now seen two high-profile criminal cases involving US soldiers. In 2005, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith raped a Filipina there while fellow marines cheered him on. The city’s Subic Bay has been a frequent host to US warships and troops that participate in military exercises through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Subic Bay used to be a US naval base until 1992. But the Americans, through the VFA and now, EDCA, really never left it.

For our Defense department, the Laude murder is an “isolated case” and should not be blamed on EDCA or the VFA. But the growing presence of US troops in Subic and other parts of the country has resulted in increasing incidents of criminal acts done by American soldiers. Aside from the rape and murder in Olongapo, US troops were also implicated in less publicized incidents of criminal acts.

One was the Gregan Cardeño case in 2010. Cardeño was an interpreter hired by an elite unit of US Special Forces called the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE). He was found dead inside a Joint Special Operation Task Force (JSOTF) facility in Camp Ranao in Marawi City on Feb. 2, 2010 after allegedly committing suicide. Less than two months later, Capt. Javier Ignacio of the Philippine Army – a friend of the Cardeños helping to shed light on his death – was shot dead by unidentified gun men. Before his death, Cardeño separately called his sister and wife and told them that his job was “hard and not what he expected”. Ignacio, meanwhile, was killed while on his way to meet human rights groups to execute an affidavit on what he discovered about Cardeño’s death.

Another was the Abham Juhurin case in 2012. Juhurin and his son were on their small fishing boat off Hadji Mutamad town in Basilan when the US military speedboat Mark V hit them. Juhurin was killed while his son suffered injuries. Philippine military authorities quickly absolved the Americans, claiming that the fishing boat had no lights. No investigation was conducted to determine the liability of the US troops as the Americans quickly sought a financial settlement with Juhurin’s family.

Laude’s death is an isolated case? There is clearly a pattern of atrocities against civilians whenever and wherever there is US military presence.

In Okinawa, Japan, host to about 26,000 US troops, some 5,584 criminal cases involving American soldiers have been reported. The cases include murder and rape, among others. There was a gang rape of a 12-year old girl by three US service personnel. The latest rape case was just last year where the US soldiers also robbed their victim.

Worse, like in the Philippines such as in the Subic rape case, US soldiers found guilty of sex crimes in Japan did not go to prison, according to an Associated Press (AP) report early this year. Offenders were simply fined, demoted, restricted to their bases or removed from the military. In about 30 cases, a letter of reprimand was the only punishment, said the AP article. It added: “Even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed, the suspect was unlikely to serve time. Of 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in the records, only a third of them were incarcerated.”

Just a couple of months ago, US troops in Seoul, South Korea were accused of “inappropriate behavior”. On May 31, 2014, two American soldiers sexually harassed two female employees in a local theme park and assaulted their male co-worker. Intoxicated, the US soldiers refused to cooperate with the police, punching one officer and spitting in his face, according to reports.

These are just the latest incidents of abuse by US troops in South Korea, which also include the rape of an 18-year old girl in 2011. Government data show that there is a rising crime rate among US servicemen in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, rapes rose from zero to 11; burglaries from 9 to 24; and violent crime in general from 118 to 154, according to authorities. US officials dismissed the figures as “low” considering that they have 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. What arrogance!

US military presence is supposed to guarantee our security. But the brutal murder of Laude reminds us that the presence of US troops is a threat to the security of our own people. That we can’t have custody over a criminal US soldier reminds us how our supposed friend and ally utterly disrespect our sovereignty as a country.

With the VFA and EDCA, and the overall submissiveness of our foreign policy to US interests, there will be more Jennifer Laudes. The next victim of US atrocities could be a transgender, or a woman; it could be a farmer, or a fisherman; maybe even a child.

Tubbataha grounding: Expect more abuses as US pivots to Asia

Environmental advocates and activists protest the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef, call for the junking of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and immediate pullout of US troops from the Philippines. (Photo from www.globaltimes.cn)
Environmental advocates and activists protest the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef, call for the junking of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and immediate pullout of US troops from the Philippines. (Photo from www.globaltimes.cn)

The grounding of the USS Guardian on the Tubbataha Reef shows one of the many dangers that increased US military presence in the country brings. Just several months prior to the destruction of a portion of the protected reefs by the 224-foot American minesweeper, which reports peg at about 1,000 square meters, the US Navy was also involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Subic Bay. Worse, the presence of American forces in the country has also meant the death of our people such as the fisherman who was hit by a US military speedboat in Basilan last year. All these incidents happened in a span of less than one year.

To be sure, these are not the first transgressions committed by US soldiers who are in the Philippines through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). (See box at the end of this article for a summary of some of the human rights atrocities committed by US troops under the VFA.) The rape of Nicole by US Marine Daniel Smith in Subic is still fresh in our collective memory. But what is alarming is the increasing frequency of such transgressions and the impunity that the US forces enjoy. Daniel Smith was acquitted. The family of the Basilan fisherman opted for a settlement with the US military. The US Navy was absolved of any liability in the Subic toxic waste dumping.

In the Tubbataha grounding incident, which dealt the protected reefs its worst damage on record, it is perturbing that our officials seem content in just seeking financial compensation for the damaged reef, worth a paltry $300 per square meter. (If the damage is 1,000 sq. m, that makes us entitled to $300,000 or about ₱12 million. Certainly, a measly sum compared to the importance of Tubbataha as a World Heritage site.) President Benigno Aquino III was also emphatic on the need of the US to pay in accordance with our laws. While imposing financial penalties and demanding an official apology from the US are legitimate demands, their importance should not be overemphasized. They should be treated as a given and should be implemented as a matter of policy. But the Philippines must take a more decisive stance on this issue, one that goes beyond demanding compensation and apology from a supposed friend and partner.

Sadly, no administration official, including Aquino, has raised the need to pursue the criminal liability of the US forces, particularly the USS Guardian commander (identified as Lt. Commander Mark A. Rice) who ignored the warnings of the Tubbataha park rangers and ordered his men to be in “battle position” when local authorities tried to exercise their rightful jurisdiction over the vessel. The special treatment being accorded to the US troops is evident in the decision of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) not to include jail time in the penalties it is seeking for the grounding incident despite clear provisions in the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act (TRNP) of 2009 or Republic Act (RA) 10067. No administration official has raised the need to at least review the VFA given the circumstances surrounding the suspicious presence of the USS Guardian in the Tubbataha area (worse, the US Navy and US government’s failure or refusal to explain such presence more than 10 days since the incident) and the actions taken by the ship’s officials. On the contrary, defense and military officials assert that regular port visits by US warships and joint military trainings with the American troops under the annual Balikatan exercises will continue, as if the Tubbataha incident did not happen. Aquino himself absolved the VFA, claiming that the ever controversial military deal has “nothing to do with the Americans’ going to Tubbataha” and that the issue is simply “a question of violating certain ecological laws.”

Aquino is wrong. The USS Guardian and numerous other US warships, aircraft and troops have been going in and out of, and around, the country via the VFA. Thus questioning the VFA and raising the political issues, beyond the environmental aspect of the controversy, is crucial in asserting our sovereignty as a nation, which is the crux of the matter in the Tubbataha incident. This becomes more important in the light of the announced pivot to Asia Pacific of US military forces. Concretely, the pivot takes the form of deploying 60% of US’s naval fleet in the region. The US Navy is the world’s largest (its tonnage is said to be greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined) and includes, among others, 11 aircraft carriers (out of the 21 active carriers worldwide) and 71 submarines. Six out of the 11 US carriers are currently already deployed in the Asia Pacific but the US also plans to deploy more of its most advanced warships and jet fighters in the region as part of the pivot. Certainly, their increased presence in our seas will make us more exposed to incidents like Tubbataha and other abuses even as Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin vainly attempts to distance the frequent and unhampered entry of US warships in the country to the grounding incident, swallowing hook, line and sinker the flimsy excuse by the captain of the USS Guardian about a faulty navigation system.

In the Philippines, one of the immediate and obvious effects of the US pivot is the drastic increase in the frequency of so-called “routine port calls” of American warships. In 2012, for instance, a total of at least 10 supposedly regular port visits have been reported in the media, with the US warships docking at mostly at Subic and Manila bays. The port visits involved 12 warships of varying sizes that included the nuclear-powered super carrier USS George Washington (escorted by two other military vessels); four nuclear-powered submarines which included the most technologically advanced in the world – the USS North Carolina, USS Louisville, USS Hawaii and USS Olympia; and a host of guided-missile destroyers, submarine tender and amphibious assault ship. On the other hand, in 2011 there were only three reported port visits involving six ships.

2012 partial list of PH-US bilateral military exercises & “routine port calls” by US military warships
Date

Summary

Mar. 3 Port visit in Iloilo of USS Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, to participate in the US Embassy’s program “showcasing American culture, US businesses & embassy services”
Mar. 5-10 Operation Pacific Angel 2012 – Some 99 US military members (US Air Force), along with members of the PH military, NGOs and LGUs conducted medical, dental, optometry & engineering programs in Legazpi, Albay
Apr. 16-27 28th Balikatan exercises involving 4,500 personnel from the US Pacom & 2,300 AFP personnel conducted command post exercise (which also included about 20 participants from Asean & 15 from other partner nations), multiple field training exercises & engineering, humanitarian & civic assistance projects (also supported by 385 local health professionals); exercises were held in Metro Manila, Tarlac, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Palawan, Zamboanga, Jolo & Basilan
May 14 Routine port call in Subic of the USS North Carolina, a Virginia class fast attack submarine, also described as one of the “stealthiest, most technologically advanced” nuclear-powered submarines in the world
Jun. 25-30 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Louisville, a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarine, to restock & R&R for its crew
Jul. 2-10 18th Cooperation Afloat Readiness & Training (Carat) involving some 500 members of US Navy & Coast Guard & about 450 personnel from the PH Navy & Coast Guard; exercises were held in General Santos City & Saranggani
Aug. 19-20 Routine port call in Manila of the USS Millius, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer
Sep. 3 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Frank Cable, an L.Y. Spear class submarine tender; ship repair, maintenance and training under the PH-US Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreement (Acsa) between sailors of USS Frank Cable & BRP Greogorio del Pilar
Sep. 7 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Hawaii, one of the most advanced nuclear-powered submarines in the world; capable of transporting special operations forces, unmanned undersea vehicles & US Navy Seals
Oct. 4 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Olympia, a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered submarine
Oct. 5 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, for R&R of its sailors & to offload US Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) who were participating in the Phiblex 13
Oct. 8-18 Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex 13) involving some 2,600 personnel from the US Pacom & over 1,200 from the AFP; exercises, held in Zambales, Palawan, Tarlac, Cavite & Nueva Ecija included staff planning exercise, a static aircraft display, multiple field training exercises & humanitarian & civic assistance projects
Oct. 24-28 Routine port call in Manila the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered Nimitz class aircraft carrier with about 5,500 personnel; it carries about 80 aircrafts of various purposes, primarily F-18 Hornets, helicopters & E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning turboprops; it was escorted by two other vessels – the USS Cowpens (a Ticenderoga-class guided missile cruiser) & USS McCampbell (an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer)
Nov. 19 Routine port call in Manila by USS Gridley, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer & part of the US Pacific Fleet
2011 “routine port calls” & PH-US bilateral military exercises: USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship (Manila, Dec. 1-4); Cooperation Afloat Readiness & Training (Sulu Sea, Palawan; Jun. 28 to Jul. 8); USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group, which also includes guided-missile destroyers USS Shiloh, USS Bunker Hill & USS Gridley (Manila, May 15-19); 27th Balikatan exercise (Pampanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Palawan, Cavite, Cebu; Apr. 5-15); USS Blue Ridge, command & control ship of the US 7th Fleet (Feb. 13-16)
Data as of Nov. 26, 2012 onlyData culled from the Embassy of the United States, Manila, Philippines, press & photo releases for 2011 & 2012, http://manila.usembassy.gov/media-resources.html, and from various online media reports

The table above does not represent an exhaustive list of all the “port visits” by US warships in the Philippines as it merely enumerated what’s reported in the media. A statement attributed to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) claimed that in 2012, US ships made 197 port calls (aside from 444 US aircraft that were cleared to land) in the Philippines. Residents of Olongapo City claim that different US warships dock at Subic Bay almost weekly. When I visited Olongapo during the New Year break, I counted at least five large US ships docked at the bay. The presence of these US military ships was not reported by the media. And I’m pretty sure that many other abuses and transgressions by American troops also went unreported.

Human rights abuses and US troops
The presence of American soldiers in the country has invited grave abuses and violations of Filipinos’ human rights. This has been the case since the US occupation of the country and continued when they still had military bases in Subic and Clark. Under the VFA, attacks on human rights perpetrated by the US troops persist and worse, even covered up by the authorities. These abuses include the mauling of a certain Marcelo Batesil in Cebu City; the shooting of suspected Abu Sayyaf suspect Buyung-Buyong Isnijal in Basilan province; the reported massacre of three Muslim civilians in Barangay Sipangkot, Umapoy Island in Tawi-Tawi and four others in Maimbung, Sulu; and the killing of a certain Arsid Baharon in Barangay San Roque in Zamboanga City.

But the biggest and most controversial case of abuse so far is the rape of Nicole in Subic involving four American Marines in 2005. In December 2006, a local judge convicted one the Marines, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, of raping Nicole. The Court of Appeals (CA), however, reversed the decision in April 2009. But one month before the CA ruling, Nicole had issued a controversial affidavit which claimed that she “can’t help but entertain doubts on whether the sequence of events in Subic… really occurred”. This affidavit was apparently the result of pressure from the US and Malacañang with the lawyer assisting Nicole in the second affidavit reportedly from the same law firm of Smith’s counsels. While it carries no legal implication, its intention was to influence public opinion so that the CA acquittal of Smith will be easily accepted by the people. Nicole was also reportedly given P100,000 in “moral and exemplary damages” by the camp of Smith aside from a US visa that allowed her to fly to the US “for good”.

US troops staying in the country were again dragged into another controversy in 2010, this time involving the death of an interpreter they hired for an elite unit of US Special Forces called the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE). Gregan Cardeño was found dead inside a Joint Special Operation Task Force (JSOTF) facility in Camp Ranao in Marawi City on Feb. 2, 2010 after allegedly committing suicide. Less than two months later, Capt. Javier Ignacio of the Philippine Army – a friend of the Cardeños helping to shed light on his death – was shot dead by unidentified gun men. Before his death, Cardeño separately called his sister and wife and told them that his job was “hard and not what he expected”. Ignacio, meanwhile, was killed while on his way to meet human rights groups to execute an affidavit on what he discovered about Cardeño’s death.

Sources: Sworn statement of Nicole, Mar. 12, 2009 (http://www.gmanews.tv/story/153159/Sworn-Statement-of-Nicole); GMA News Online. “Smith camp’s hand seen in Nicole ‘recantation’ bared”. Mar. 18, 2009 (http://www.gmanews.tv/story/153150/Smith-camps-hand-in-Nicole-recantation-bared); The Philippine Star. “’Nicole’ leaves for US, settles for P100,000”. Mar. 18, 2009. Retrieved Mar. 25, 2011; (http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=449575&publicationSubCategoryId=63); Lacorte, Germelina. “Group demands junking RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement over death of Filipino interpreter”. Davao Today. Jul. 15, 2010. Retrieved Mar. 25, 2011 (http://bulatlat.com/main/2010/07/15/group-demands-junking-rp-us-vfa-over-death-of-filipino-interpreter/)  

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“2+2” equals more secret US bases in PH

The 2+2 meeting in Washington could lead to the establishment of more covert US “military bases” in the country such as the bases being maintained by the JSOTF-P (Photo from jsotf-p.blogspot.com)

The 28th Balikatan exercises ended with the “usual thank yous”, said an Inquirer report. “As the curtain closes down on this year’s Balikatan, I would like to express my gratitude to the American soldiers… who gave their invaluable time to share their experiences…” General Jessie Dellosa, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said during the closing ceremony.

First of its kind

But the curtain never truly closes for the US troops in the Philippines. Because while the Balikatan has already been concluded, the supposedly visiting American soldiers will not leave. About 600 of them – perhaps even more – will continue to stay in the country as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P), established under the 1999 PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

And when the so-called 2+2 meeting on April 30 is over, we could be seeing more US troops – maybe thousands – deployed, on so-called “rotational” basis, on our shores soon. The 2+2 meeting, which will be held in Washington, is described as “the first of its kind” in Philippine-US relations. To underscore its significance for the country, the Department of National Defense (DND) said that the US has had similar meetings only with Japan and South Korea, America’s most reliable allies in East Asia.

And while the meeting that will be attended by DND Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Sec. Albert del Rosario, US Defense Sec. Leon Panetta and State Sec. Hillary Clinton will also discuss economic and political cooperation, what everyone is anticipating are details of how Manila and Washington will strengthen military relations.

Chinese assertiveness

The military aspect of the upcoming talks has generated increased public interest due to the ongoing Scarborough Shoal standoff between the Philippines and China. Filipino and American officials, abetted by the local mainstream media, have used the perceived Chinese bullying to highlight the supposed potential benefits for the Philippines of deepened military relations with the US.

China’s assertive stance in its dispute with the country over the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands is being used to justify increased US military presence and intervention in the Philippines and in the region. While this serves US’s agenda in Asia Pacific, it also raises further risks to peace and development in the region and to the national sovereignty of the Philippines. (Read more on this here)

Sustaining global presence

Meanwhile, one of the expected results of the 2+2 meeting is the conduct of more frequent and bigger joint military exercises and the deployment of more US troops here like those under the JSOFT-P. This is consistent with the latest defense strategy of the Obama administration. As I have written in a previous post:

Updating existing military alliances and forging new ones, however, have to be pursued in the midst of the harsh economic realities facing the US. Amid its raging public debt crisis that has been caused in part by costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration released this month its latest defense strategy document Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense. The document was the result of “an assessment of US defense strategy in the light of the changing geopolitical environment and changing fiscal circumstances”.

Consequently, the latest US defense strategy calls for developing “innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieve US security objectives, relying on bilateral and multilateral training exercises, rotational deployments and advisory capabilities. This will allow US forces to “conduct a sustainable pace of presence operations abroad” and at the same time let it commit to a large-scale operation in one region while still having the capability to impose “unacceptable costs” on an aggressor in a second region.

New types of bases

To house the additional troops, the 2+2 meeting could lead to the establishment of more covert US “military bases” in the country such as Forward Operating Sites (FOSs) and Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs). These types of bases are much smaller than traditional US foreign military bases.

The US Overseas Basing Commission, the official body tasked to review US military basing in other countries, describes FOSs as “expandable ‘warm facilities’ maintained with a limited US military support presence and possibly prepositioned equipment; it supports rotational rather than permanently stationed forces and be a focus for bilateral and regional training.” CSLs, on the other hand, are “facilities with little or no permanent US presence. Instead they will be maintained with periodic service, contractor, or host-nation support. CSLs will provide contingency access and be a focal point for security cooperation activities.” For US strategic planners, the expansion of FOSs and CSLs in key locations worldwide “adds to operational flexibility, preserves a presence abroad, and serves to strengthen alliance relationships.”

Essential for US operations

In the Philippines, the headquarters of the JSOTF-P inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City where it has based since 2002 is considered an example of an FOS or sometimes referred to as forward operating base (FOB) in some US military papers. Read, for instance, a 2004 monograph on Army special operations forces, which used Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-P) in Mindanao as a case study. The OEF-P was pushed by then President George W. Bush supposedly to combat the Abu Sayyaf and covers Mindanao as its area of operation (AO).

As narrated in the monograph, the Joint Task Force (JTF)-510 – JSOTF-P’s predecessor – “set up an FOB on the southern tip of the Mindanao Island near Zamboanga City”, specifically the Edwin Andrews Air Base (EAAB) because “basing was essential for OEF-P”. It also described the role of an FOB in US military operations: “The FOB at EAAB was the logistical hub within the AO for all operations. All US forces flowed in the FOB before conducting operations… From Okinawa, all assets and personnel flew into the JTF’s AO via the FOB at EABB on Mindanao. FOB EAAB served as a transloading point, logistical hub for the forces on Mindanao and Basilan, and housed air assets.”

Covert bases

The location of these bases is not willingly disclosed to the public by authorities in an effort not to attract too much attention to the presence of US troops as well as to undercut criticisms against US military basing in the Philippines which is a violation of the Constitution. Even so, US military documents such as the monograph cited earlier would confirm the existence of US bases in the Philippines.

Another such document is the 2005 report of the US Overseas Basing Commission, which disclosed that: “A series of CSLs are being developed in India, Thailand, Philippines, and Australia that will be able to provide logistics arrangements for support throughout the region. Many of these will simply be fueling arrangements and perhaps some pre-positioned stocks.” The Philippine government, however, has not confirmed the existence of these CSLs, much less disclose their locations.

But in an August 2009 affidavit, former Philippine Navy Lt. Sr. Grade Nancy Gadian revealed that since 2002, the US has established “permanent and continuous presence” in southern Mindanao as she identified possible CSLs in Zamboanga City, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. The table below summarizes her testimony describing the location and features of US presence/basing in Mindanao.

It was also Gadian who exposed the anomalous use of P46 million in Balikatan funds by high ranking AFP officials. She was the officer in charge of the Civil Military Operations (CMO) Fusion Cell for Balikatan 2007. In 2001, Gadian was one of the planners of the Balikatan 2002 (held in Pampanga) and of Balikatan 2002-1 (held in Mindanao).

Violates sovereignty

Aside from those identified by Gadian, another possible CSL is located inside Camp Ranao in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur which was unknown to the public until the reported death of Gregan Cardeño, an interpreter hired by the Americans for an elite unit of US Special Forces called the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE). Cardeño died on Feb. 2, 2010 under dubious circumstances, telling relatives before his death that his job “was hard and not what he expected”. Less than two months later, Capt. Javier Ignacio of the Philippine Army – a friend of the Cardeños helping to shed light on his death – was shot dead by still  unidentified gun men.

Certainly, there are many other military facilities set up and being used by US troops in the Philippines, including in Luzon and Visayas, which the public does not know. But their number could further increase as Philippine-US military relations further deepen in the coming years. This blatantly violates Philippine sovereignty and an infringement of the Constitution which does not allow the basing of foreign troops in the country.

Consequently, more atrocities involving American soldiers such as the case of Cardeño could arise. Just recently, another Filipino died – fisherman Ahbam Juhurin – in what was a supposedly “sea mishap” involving US troops conducting “routine maritime activity” in Basilan. While some may argue that this latest incident was just an accident, Juhurin’s death still raises a fundamental question – why do we allow US troops to base in our country and patrol our seas, lands, and air? (end)

IBON Infographic: US military operations in PH, 2001-2011

IBON Infographic/ April 2012 US Military Operations in the Philippines, 2001-2011

(Visit the IBON website)

Above is an infographic on the presence of US military in the country during the last decade since it launched its so-called war on terrorism.

The United States (US) recently declared a foreign policy pivot toward Asia involving greater economic, political and military engagement in the region. The shift however started as early as 2001 when its Quadrennial Defense Review proclaimed a shift to Asia and a corresponding increase in the US military presence through fixed bases, rotational deployments, training exercises and logistical arrangements.

The US called the Philippines its “second front [in the war on terrorism]” in January 2002 and has dramatically built up a nationwide military presence since then. The US military has made extensive use of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to station some 600-700 special forces troops in the country and to bring in as much as 7,000 other soldiers at a time on so-called joint exercises, civil-military actions and relief operations. It has also used the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA) to establish military outposts and access war materiel for its forces.

The whole archipelago has been transformed into a US military base, which violates Philippine sovereignty and the 1987 Constitution.

(When citing this article, please credit IBON Foundation and not the blogger. Thank you.)

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US agenda in Asia and the risks that Aquino is courting

Officials say the Philippines needs more US troops to counter China's "bullying", but is it really for the national interest? (Photo from inquirer.net)

Manila and Washington have both denied that the bilateral strategic dialogue between their senior diplomats and defense officials last week intends to bring back permanent American military bases in the Philippines. The talks, they said, is just meant to explore increased US military presence in the country such as conducting more joint exercises and rotating more American troops.

Officials said that the threat posed by China to both countries justifies the direction that the dialogue aims to pursue. The US State Department declared that protecting the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is an interest shared by the Philippines and the US. Its Defense Department said that they want to discuss how America’s enhanced posture in Asia can be useful to the Philippines. Meanwhile, for our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), “we need to have a good neighbor on the block” so that the country can no longer be bullied by China.

What’s driving America’s renewed interest in Asia? Is it really for the national interest to play an eager part in the US agenda in the region?  Or is the Aquino administration courting undue risks by hosting heightened US military presence and upping the ante in the country’s territorial dispute with China?

Economic crisis drives US pivot to Asia

The expanded military cooperation with the Philippines forms part of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, as State Secretary Hillary Clinton called the shift in US focus from Afghanistan and Iraq to Asia, where “the future of politics will be decided”. This pivot is being driven by the ever worsening crisis of global capitalism of which the US is the center. In an essay entitled America’s Pacific Century in November last year, Clinton wrote that Asia will yield the biggest returns in US investments at a time when the country is facing a severe economic crisis. Clinton described Asia as central to US economic and strategic interests with its vast markets and investment areas crucial to its own economic recovery.

Under the Obama administration, the US has been steadily laying the groundwork for a reinvigorated American economic clout in Asia. In last year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hawaii, President Barack Obama was able to secure wide support for the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal to enhance US free trade and investment with the region. The agreement, which the Philippines will soon join, is expected to be finalized this year. Its increasing economic interests in Asia thus necessitate the refocusing of US military projection in the region.

Expanded military ties

The Philippines, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand, have long maintained treaty alliances with the US. But the ascent of China as an economic behemoth has posed new challenges for American interests in the region. China is being depicted as having the greatest potential to compete militarily with the US and a threat to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which for the first time is being considered as a matter of US national interest. Thus, as Clinton wrote, there is a need not only to sustain but to “update” US’s existing alliances which will serve as the fulcrum of its pivot to Asia. This entails the expansion of existing military cooperation and forging new ties for defense and security.

When finalized, the deal with the Philippines will follow improved US military arrangements with other long-time allies like Australia and Singapore. The pact with Australia allows the US to station up to 2,500 Marines in a military base in Darwin while the deal with Singapore will let it station combat Navy ships for forward deployment. The US has been building up as well its military relations with Vietnam through joint naval exercises, and in August last year, the former Cold War foes forged their first formal military deal. It is also aggressively pursuing new bilateral ties including even with Burma, which Clinton visited last December – the first trip by a US Secretary of State in more than half a century.

US priorities for 21st century defense

Updating existing military alliances and forging new ones, however, have to be pursued in the midst of the harsh economic realities facing the US. Amid its raging public debt crisis that has been caused in part by costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration released this month its latest defense strategy document Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense. The document was the result of “an assessment of US defense strategy in the light of the changing geopolitical environment and changing fiscal circumstances”.

Consequently, the latest US defense strategy calls for developing “innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieve US security objectives, relying on bilateral and multilateral training exercises, rotational deployments and advisory capabilities. This will allow US forces to “conduct a sustainable pace of presence operations abroad” and at the same time let it commit to a large-scale operation in one region while still having the capability to impose “unacceptable costs” on an aggressor in a second region. But given its reduced resources, the US needs to make thoughtful choices on the location and frequency of these operations. As mentioned, Asia is high on Obama’s list of security priorities. Apparently referring to the South China Sea, the defense strategy reaffirmed US commitment to “assure access to and use of global commons by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities”.

Economic sanction

News of expanded PH-US military cooperation earned strong condemnation from Global Times, one of the mouthpieces of the Chinese government. In its editorial Make Philippines pay for balancing act, the broadsheet denounced the Philippines for inviting more US troops and increased presence by using the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. It called for well “well-measured sanctions” against the Philippines and “make it ponder the choice of losing a friend such as China and being a vain partner of the US”. Global Times proposed that China “consider cooling down its business ties with the Philippines”.

While not an official policy statement of the Chinese government, what the Global Times editorial said is not an empty threat. It underscored one of the risks that come with Aquino’s excessively pro-US foreign policy. The export-oriented Philippine economy has seen the demand for its products abroad decline amid the raging global crisis, substantially slowing down gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Philippine exports have contracted by 5.6% from January to November 2011 with exports to the US, which is at the center of the crisis, falling by 6.2 percent. On the contrary, amid the contraction in exports to the US, exports to China remained robust, growing by almost 9.9% during the same period.

False sense of security

More importantly, increased US presence presents a continuing risk to the country’s national sovereignty and its people. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which Filipino and American officials said will remain the basis of expanded military cooperation, has allowed the virtual permanent basing here of as many as 600 US soldiers that for legal experts and some legislators is an infringement of the 1987 Constitution. Several cases of human rights violations and other abuses involving American troops have been reported including the highly controversial Subic rape case.

And worse, while the Philippines is willing to face these risks, Aquino is clinging to a false sense of security by inviting more American soldiers and more US military ships in the country. Last year, the US embassy in Manila clarified that the US “does not take side in regional territorial disputes” in reaction to a Malacañang statement saying that Washington will surely honor its commitment with the Philippines and come to the aid of the country in case a military conflict erupts in the South China Sea. Instead, the US will simply arm the Philippines by selling it “affordable military hardware” so that it can “defend itself”. Ironically, the possibility of an actual military conflict with China is being stoked by aggressive projection of US military might in the region in connivance with the Aquino administration, putting the country and our people at risk.

In the end, the question is not which party to side with, but how the Philippines can best protect its territorial integrity. It is not in our interest to play a willing part in US military maneuverings in the region. If there is a perception that China is bullying us, the solution is not to run for help to a bigger bully. Diplomacy within the framework of mutually beneficial relations with our neighbors in the region should be our utmost weapon. Clearly, the best foreign policy is one that is anchored on the assertion of national sovereignty and not one that relies on a Big Brother to protect the country’s interests. #