A DECADE OF US TROOPS IN MINDANAO: Revisiting the Visiting Forces Agreement

1st  of three parts

(US military forces returned to the Philippines via the country’s “backdoor” – Mindanao – in January 2002 through Balikatan 02-1, eleven years after the last US troops left Subic Bay following the expiration of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement. Balikatan 02-1 was supposed to have ended in July that year but some American soldiers were left behind purportedly to finish construction of schoolbuildings and other humanitarian projects. Since 2002, there has been, in  what then US Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone described in 2005 as a “semi-continuous, not permanent, but semi-continuous (military presence), that is to say, some number of our personnel rotate at the pleasure of the command, your command.” MindaNews begins this series of special reports on a decade of US military presence in Mindanao by revisiting the Visiting Forcers Agreement.)

FIRED UP Militants burn a US flag in a rally in Zamboanga City on 20 April 2012 to symbolize their opposition to American military presence in the Philippines. Groups led by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan staged a caravan around Mindanao from April 16-20 that coincided with the opening of another round of war games in the country involving Philippine and US troops. Contributed photo by Aries Sandino M. MordenoMALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/23 April) – In October 2010, President Benigno S. Aquino III declared he would seek a review of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, especially the provisions on the custody of US servicemen facing criminal charges. His statement came amid tensions with China over the disputed Spratly Islands, in the West Philippine Sea. In July last year, the US dipped its fingers into the row by conducting joint naval exercises in the West Philippine Sea, in what observers said was a blunt message it would not countenance China’s “bullying” in the disputed territory.

On  January 27 this year, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario said the Philippines would accept increased American military presence in the country in accordance with the constitutional ban on permanent foreign bases. His statement followed pronouncements by defense and military officials that talks were underway for greater American military presence in the country in the context of China’s increasing assertion of its claim over the Spratlys.

But Bayan Muna Representative Teddy Casiño said the Philippines is desperately trying to check “Chinese bullying” by bringing into the region “the bigger bully.”

“This is dangerous as it is most likely that the two bullies will eventually come to a mutually beneficial agreement with us left out. This is what happened between the US and Spain before,” Casiño said, recalling a chapter of Philippine history that defined the country’s political and military relations with the US.

Historical background

“You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” Commodore George Dewey calmly told his chief gunner in the Battle of Manila Bay, on 1 May 1898, as vintage Spanish warships came within striking distance of his own. His order signaled the end of Spain’s almost 400 years of colonial rule, and the entry of the US as a new imperial power. Consequently, Asia’s first republic fell victim to political infanticide, if not abortion.

US conquest of its only colony was dictated by a grave economic crisis at home and the need to establish an overseas outpost to advance its geopolitical interests as an emerging world power. Aside from being a source of cheap raw materials for its hungry factories, the archipelago happens to lie along strategic sea routes from the Pacific to the Straits of Malacca and farther to the Indian Ocean. No other territory could serve as a more effective buffer on the western side of the Pacific.

The US built a string of military bases, the biggest of which were the Clark Air Base and the Subic Naval Base. At the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, the bases became the first targets of Japanese attacks. After the war, the US and the Philippines signed the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) of 1947.

But Raoul Angangco and Jose Perpetuo Lotilla, writing for the Philippine Law Journal (Volume 53, 4th Quarter), noted that the Philippines signed the pact “within a situation of almost total economic and military dependence on the US.”

Four years later, on 30 August 1951, the Philippines and the US signed the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The pact obliges the parties to support each other in case of an attack by an external party.

During the Cold War the same bases served as springboard for US intervention in Asia, for instance, during the Korean War and Vietnam War, which saw the direct participation of Philippine troops.

The Cold War likewise resulted in the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by the two chief protagonists – the US and the former Soviet Union.

With growing fears over the likelihood of a thermonuclear showdown between the two powers, questions surfaced whether the US bases in the Philippines did not in fact store nuclear arms. US officials had always maintained a “neither confirm nor deny” attitude, but some analysts said the bases were useless if they did not harbor nuclear weapons.

Having foreign bases is consistent with the US “forward deployment” strategy, considered the most effective way of projecting military power in response to crises, disasters and potential aggression against allies.

In the context of the Cold War, forward deployment meant stationing large numbers of troops in foreign territories for the same purpose of shielding allies from attacks. As the US stated in a 2006 report to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: “Those forces were primarily designed to fight in place or close to their base. Troops in South Korea, for example, were there to deter aggression from North Korea and would have been the first in combat should North Korea have resumed hostilities with the South.”

The end of the Cold War has not meant the end of US military presence [in Southeast Asia]. US troops have returned in quite a different manner. A new face of intervention has emerged. [To be continued]