‘Allies needed vs bullies’: They’re near our doorstep – DND chief

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The country needs stronger military partnerships with its allies while building up its own defense capabilities in the face of “bullying” by an “oppressive” China, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said yesterday.

Gazmin’s declaration came on the heels of an announcement that the United States and other allies would be given access to the country’s air and naval facilities, particularly at two former US bases in Clark and Subic, to counter China’s expanding presence in Philippine waters.

“At this point, we cannot stand alone. We need to form alliances. If we don’t, bigger forces will bully us, and that is happening now,” Gazmin told reporters in Filipino yesterday.

He called China “an oppressive neighbor” that has already trespassed into the Philippines’ “garage.”

“While we are filing cases (before an international tribunal) and at the same time building up our capability to address our security concerns, it’s important that we collaborate with other countries friendly and sympathetic to us,” he said.

He bewailed that Chinese vessels have remained in Philippine territorial waters despite an arbitration case filed by the government.

“We brought this up before the court but in spite of that, they (Chinese) are still there. They refuse to leave. What will we do? Are we going to wait for them to enter our doorstep?”

Gazmin clarified that there is no plan to build new bases since the Constitution prohibits it. He said the access arrangement was brought up during the Two Plus Two Ministerial Consultations held in Washington last year. The agreement is in line with plans to increase the rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines.

At least one other civilian facility – the Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro – may be made available for use by US forces.

Gazmin said their legal team is carefully studying the wording of the access agreement, which aims to allow US assets like fighter jets to refuel in the country.

The Philippines is also strengthening its defense ties with Japan, which is also embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.

Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera earlier said the two countries would cooperate in terms of defense of remote islands and territorial seas.

No China link

At Malacañang, however, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government is not trying to antagonize China with its plan to give the US and other allies access to Philippine military bases.

“At this point, what we do within our territory is perfectly within our rights and as such, we see no reason why it should raise any particular tensions,” Valte said in a press briefing yesterday. “Other countries must have respect for that.”

She said it’s not only in the Philippines that the US is increasing the “rotational presence” of its forces, citing Washington’s announcement of a pivot to Asia policy.

“So knowing that there has already been an agreement on increased rotational presence, the DND is tasked with looking at how to operationalize this particular aspect and what was mentioned by Secretary Gazmin is but one of the modalities that they are looking into in order to operationalize that,” Valte said.

She stressed that any initiative or action would be in accordance with the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US.

She stressed that details of an access agreement under the VFA were still being threshed out and there’s nothing final yet on the reported plan to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay at the cost of P10 billion.

“They are still studying, they are still in the process of looking at these things,” Valte said, referring to the officials involved in the plan.

Constitutional question

For Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the plan for greater US presence in the country would raise constitutional questions, especially if it would involve establishing new military facilities or bases for use by US forces.

“What we have is a Visiting Forces Agreement. VFA does not provide the presence of any foreign military bases,” Enrile said.

He said the 1987 Constitution strictly prohibits the establishment of any foreign military bases in the country. 

“I don’t know if we can establish a refueling station for them (Americans). They can visit and refuel here, but to establish their facility in the Philippines, that is only a subterfuge in a sense that there is a prohibition in the Constitution,” Enrile said.

He said that even under the VFA, the US military may refuel in the country but it cannot establish its own refueling facilities.

Senators Panfilo Lacson and Vicente Sotto III said executive officials should first consult the Senate before pushing through with the plan – even if it doesn’t need the chamber’s approval.

Lacson said Malacañang or the DND should let the Senate know every move they make regarding the matter out of inter-departmental courtesy.

Lacson had served as chairman of the Senate committee on national defense and security.

“If there are activities that are not covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement, this should be known by the Senate,” Sotto said.

Party-list lawmakers slammed the so-called “access arrangements” with the US and Japan, saying the scheme is tantamount to setting up foreign military bases in the country.

“What’s in a name? Access arrangements, military exercises or routine port calls – they all mean the same thing, translating to the unhampered use of facilities and structures in Philippine territory for foreign military use,” Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said in a statement.

“It means allowing unlimited foreign military basing in the Philippines,” she said. “These so called access arrangements are so vague that it appears to expand the Visiting Forces Agreement.”

Joint US-Philippine military exercises in disputed areas like Panatag Shoal would only give China more excuse to flex its military muscle in the region, thus further raising tension, she said.

“We shall now become a magnet of aggression when territorial conflicts with China and other countries could be resolved through diplomatic and nonmilitary forms,” she pointed out.

Bayan Muna Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlo Zarate said in a joint statement that it would be “a shameful act of national betrayal if President Aquino will overturn the 1991 historic verdict of the people and the Philippine Senate against the US bases by turning Philippine bases and facilities into American military outposts.”

Anakpawis party-list Rep. Fernando Hicap, for his part, asked the DND to divulge the details of the access agreement.  

A statement from the Communist Party of the Philippines also said an increased US presence in the Philippines would further complicate the West Philippine Sea dispute.

“It is provoking China to be more aggressive in its defense of its territories and push beyond its sea borders,” the CPP said.

Last year, the US bared plans to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020.

Then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US naval assets would be realigned from a roughly 50-50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60-40 in favor of the Pacific.

CARAT starts today


Meanwhile, Philippine and US forces begin today their joint military exercise called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) near Panatag Shoal.

Joining the naval maneuver are Philippine Navy flagship BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and the coast guard’s BRP EDSA-2.

The US ships involved in the exercise are USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer; and USNS Salvor and USN Safeguard.

CARAT-Philippines spokesman Ensign Bernard Sabado said the event is closed to media.

The ceremonies launching the war games were held on Thursday in a function hall called “Beijing Room” of a Chinese restaurant in Subic.- With Aurea Calica, Marvin Sy, Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude, Jose Rodel Clapano

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