SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 25, 2013 - 12:00am

The US government is back in business, but it came too late for President Barack Obama to push through with his visit to Manila, or for Secretary of State John Kerry to fill in for him.

High on Obama’s agenda, if his trip had pushed through, was nudging the two governments to finalize the terms for increased “rotational presence” of US troops in the Philippines.

Washington, I was told, wanted to speed up the talks, but there are sticking points such as ownership issues that may take a while to resolve.

The plan is for the Americans to assist the Philippines in reviving their formal naval base in Subic Bay. By assistance, we can guess that Uncle Sam will be providing the bulk of the financing, special security equipment and tech support that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) needs to monitor the West Philippine Sea and shoo away intruders.

As proposed, the Subic facility will be a Philippine base under an AFP commander, hosting US troops on rotational assignment.

There is no such thing as a free base, however, and the one who foots the bill normally has a lot of say in running the operations. What will be the terms of ownership and command structure for a facility bankrolled largely by American taxpayers?

In case of misbehavior, jurisdiction over visiting US forces will also have to be more clearly defined than what is stated in the Visiting Forces Agreement. In our Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia, there is reciprocity, with jurisdiction defined depending on whether the offense is committed while the soldier is on or off duty.

Also, let’s not kid ourselves – the plan for increased rotational presence is about containing the threat, real or imagined, posed by China as it flexes its military muscle and aggressively stakes a claim over nearly all the seas around it.

Overwhelmingly outgunned and outnumbered, the Philippines would lose against China even in a spitting or pissing contest. So Filipinos are welcoming back GI Joe, under an arrangement that gives American troops the greatest access yet to Philippine military facilities since the shutdown of US bases two decades ago.

Unable to stop the Chinese even from collecting our endangered scaly anteaters, we have turned to the United Nations for arbitration to define our maritime entitlements under international law, and to allies led by the US for defense assistance.

Our SOS coincides with the American pivot back to its own yard in the Asia-Pacific, after a lengthy involvement in the Middle East and North Africa. The pivot, let’s not kid ourselves, is also fueled by China’s rise as an economic and military power that can rival Uncle Sam.

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Apart from the US, Filipinos welcome other naval forces that can contribute to maritime stability in the waters of East and Southeast Asia.

India, which has its own territorial dispute with China, is increasing its engagement with the region as part of a decade-old “Look East” policy.

This week Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid visited Manila for the second meeting of the two countries’ Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation. Next month the second meeting of the Joint Defense Cooperation Committee will take place in New Delhi.

India, a member of the elite nuclear club, builds some of its own naval vessels. Its stealth warship visited Manila earlier this year. India is developing its first aircraft carrier and is meanwhile procuring one from Russia. The AFP may buy two frigates from India.

Considering our shared democratic values and aspirations, and centuries-old people-to-people exchanges, bilateral ties should be closer.

Last Thursday, Khurshid told me he wanted bilateral ties to become “exciting and more substantive.”

“We want to intensify, expand relations. The potential is there, very clearly,” he told me. “We need to look at commonalities.”

Among the commonalities is bickering with China. Tsinoys tell me the Indians and Chinese don’t like each other very much, and there are Indian officials who openly say that they are increasing their engagement in the region to contain China.

Officially, Khurshid told me he is optimistic about his country’s ties with China. He considers his Chinese counterpart open-minded, and New Delhi is engaging with Beijing.

Khurshid swapped notes with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on dealing with China. The Indians observed that the Chinese think in millennial terms, so progress on matters such as territorial disputes could take a long time to resolve.

“The key to the game is patience,” Khurshid told me. “Don’t ring-fence them. Don’t disengage on those areas where it is possible to continue working with China.”

He said one can’t put all aspects of the relationship in one compartment “and say that nothing moves until differences are resolved.”

Even Taiwan, he said, is being practical and engaging with Beijing.

The Chinese, Khurshid said, have developed “sufficient confidence to start conversations.”

This may be doubted by those who found it unfortunate that Beijing, at the eleventh hour, disinvited President Aquino to an expo where the Philippines was the country of honor. The move, meant to show displeasure over the Philippines’ decision to take the maritime dispute to the UN, smacked of immature truculence on the part of a growing global power.

China was blindsided in the arbitration move, and it is probably showing a strong response – represented by the withdrawal of the invitation to P-Noy – to discourage its other neighbors, particularly Japan and Vietnam, from taking the same route.

Will we ever see change in Beijing’s attitude?

“Patience will pay,” Khurshid told me.

So will a little help from friends.

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