News Analysis: Plan to allow US, Japan military access to Phl bases met by opposition

The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) - The recent announcement by Philippine defense officials that the country would allow access of military forces of the United States and other allies to Philippine military bases has been met by strong opposition not only from the usual anti-American groups but also from high government officials as well.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who recently quit as senate president but will remain as senator until 2016, said that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries allows only a temporary stay of US forces in the country.

"If it assumes a certain degree of permanence or stability, then it's no longer visiting forces," Enrile said.  

Enrile, who was among the 12 senators that rejected the extension of the Philippine-US military bases agreement in 1991, said that when the Senate ratified the VFA in 1999, "what we agreed upon is a rule (under which) American soldiers (will stay in) the Philippines only temporarily."

Enrile, one of the country's top legal experts, said that if the access plan would allow the US forces to stay in the Philippines for an unlimited period, then it would be an issue that the Supreme Court would have to settle.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the Philippines will not build new air and naval bases, but simply allow access to the United States, Japan and other allies to the country's existing military bases.

Gazmin's announcement coincided with the opening of the joint naval exercises, dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), at the Subic Bay Freeport, a former American naval facility, some 200 km north of Manila.

The naval exercises, which end on July 2, are part of the US "pivot strategy" in Asia earlier announced by US President Barack Obama.

Gazmin said the government is still preparing the access agreement, adding that if the agreement is done, then the Philippines will allow access of US and Japanese war assets to Philippine bases. He said the former US naval base in Subic, Zambales province, was among the bases being considered to be covered by the access agreement.

Gazmin said Japan is welcomed to have joint military exercises with the Philippines. But Japanese troops cannot step on Philippine soil without a visiting forces agreement between the two countries, he said.

Malacanang, the seat of the country's government, defended the access plan, saying the country was free to do anything within its territory.

But Presidential Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Friday that President Benigno Aquino still has not approved the plan.

Also on Friday, some lawmakers expressed fears of unlimited access of American and Japanese forces to military bases in the Philippines.

"What's in a name? Access arrangements, military exercises or routine port calls - they all mean the same thing, translating into unhampered use of facilities and structures in Philippine territory for foreign military use," Gabriela Representative Luzviminda C. Ilagan said in a statement.

Ilagan said the terms of the access agreements being drawn by the Department of National Defense are "so vague that these appear to expand the VFA."

She said the defense department would create de facto military bases by allowing US and Japanese forces use of an"unidentified and undetermined number of Philippine facilities for an undetermined period of time."

Bayan Muna Representatives Neri Colmenares and Carlo Zarate called the plan "a shameful act of national betrayal" to overturn the 1991 Senate vote to eject the US bases from the country.

Colmenares zeroed on giving access to Japan, saying that Japan' s military presence in the Philippines is not only unwanted, but also unwelcomed. "This is an insult to our veterans and comfort women who suffered under the Japanese during World War II," Colmenares said.

Zarate pointed that the increased US military presence in Mindanao has worsened the security situation in the region.

"The people's rights were disregarded, and the VFA was rendered inutile while the Philippine government covered up the reported human rights violations by US troops in Mindanao," Zarate said.

Reacting to news reports about the Philippine plan on Thursday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Beijing that the strategy was a "path of confrontation" and it would be "doomed."

Wang said countries that "try to reinforce their poorly grounded claims (in the South China Sea) through the help of external forces" would find the strategy a "miscalculation not worth the effort."

By a slim vote of 12-11, the Philippine Senate voted to expel U. S. military bases from the Philippines in 1991, but it ratified the VFA in l999.  

The Philippine Constitution expressly prohibits foreign military bases to be established in the Philippines.   

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