US says no pressure on Phl to sign enhanced defense pact

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - While encouraged by the “positive” outcome of the eighth and possibly last round of negotiations with the Philippines for enhanced defense cooperation, the United States is urging Manila not to be pressured into signing an agreement by the April 28 visit of US President Barack Obama, diplomatic sources said yesterday.

Sources also ruled out a connection between Obama’s visit and the enhanced defense deal or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s upgrade of the Philippines’ commercial aviation industry status to Category 1.

“These two are not related. It is a technical matter. If the Philippines did not comply it would not have gotten (Category 1),” a source said.

“That is not the case,” another source confirmed. “They have been coming here for the last six years… and there is technical assistance to CAAP. It has nothing to do with the visit. It just so happened. It is a coincidence.”

But they agreed that under current circumstances, it would be good for the Philippines and the US to sign an enhanced defense partnership.

Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, chairman of the Philippine negotiating panel, earlier stressed that a deal would reflect full respect for Philippine sovereignty, as well as guarantee non-permanence of US troops and a prohibition against weapons of mass destruction.

Last week, the FAA restored the Category 1 rating for the Philippine aviation industry six years after it was downgraded to Category 2 due to safety concerns.

With the Category 1 upgrade, Philippine flag carriers can now operate normally and expand their operations in the US.

Still for review

At Malacañang, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. also stressed the FAA upgrade should not be tied with the enhanced defense cooperation agreement being finalized.

In a press briefing yesterday, Coloma said details of an accord on increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines would be made public to dispel suspicion that the US had dangled the proverbial carrot to have the deal approved.

“If the agreement has been finalized, then the next step would be for that agreement to be submitted for review by the President, because that is an executive agreement. Definitely, it will have to be reviewed and finally approved by the President,” Coloma said.

Coloma reiterated the agreement was not being rushed in time for the visit of Obama on April 28 to 29.

Aside from the upcoming visit, the US Department of Agriculture announced it was considering importing more mangoes from the Philippines after the FAA upgrade.

“We are aware that the Federal Aviation (Administration) of the US, as with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), had already previously noted some concerns regarding aviation safety. And those concerns were duly addressed by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, resulting in the favorable outcome that was announced to us last week, so that is what it is all about,” Coloma said.

“If in another front we get good news, then we welcome that news with total appreciation, and we hope that it will result… in even more beneficial outcomes to our farmers and to our industry,” Coloma pointed out.

“Let us be aware that there is an entire spectrum of relationships in the international field – both multilateral and bilateral,” he added.

While citing “many interdependencies,” Coloma said the aviation issue came way ahead of the talks on enhanced defense cooperation and should be appreciated differently.

Meanwhile, militant fishers group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) said it would be “treacherous” for the government to allow greater American troop presence in the country through an enhanced defense deal with the US.

In a statement, Pamalakaya vice chairman Salvador France said the government had begun construction of a P500-million “mini naval base” for the US military in Oyster Bay in Palawan even before a pact on enhanced defense cooperation could be signed.

The group called the deal “a wholesale sellout of national sovereignty” that “should be challenged in the parliament of the streets, in the court of public opinion and other venues including but not limited to the halls of Philippine Congress and Supreme Court.”

The group noted that in October 2013, Philippine Navy Commodore Joseph Rostum Peña said the “mini-Subic Naval Base” being set up in Palawan could accommodate the navy’s two frigates, both former US Coast Guard cutters. – With Aurea Calica, Ding Cervantes

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