WASHINGTON D.C. -- Talks to increase the US military footprint in the Philippines are only half way through but the contours of the “framework agreement” are already emerging – more troops, new structures and deployment of America’s vaunted arsenal short of nuclear weapons.
“We’re just past 50 percent,” Assistant Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos “King” Sorreta told ABS-CBN News at the end of a two-day meeting with officials from the State Department and Pentagon.
The two long-time allies are trying to craft a “framework agreement for the increased rotational presence” of US forces in the Philippines. A 3rd round of meetings will be held here in the middle of September and they hope to finalize the agreement shortly after in Manila, Sorreta revealed.
Sources told ABS-CBN News that although the talks have not yet specified which Philippine military camps the US intends to set up shop, the Pentagon has been reportedly asking about those on the country’s western flank, facing the South China Sea.
Philippine officials stressed the agreement would be mutually beneficial to both countries, which have a 62-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty. The US has vowed to defend freedom of navigation on the South China Sea – through which $5.3 trillion in world trade passes each year and is vital to US allies in the Asia-Pacific region. But an increasingly assertive China, which claims most of the South China Sea as its own, is making countries there nervous.
Aside from the deployment of additional troops, the US also plans to pre-position military hardware and supplies in the Philippines.
“They could include systems so long as they do not violate the constitutional ban on nuclear weapons,” Sorreta explained.
The 1986 Philippine Constitution bans nuclear weapons in the country – an issue frequently raised by militants while trying to oust the US military from Clark and Subic, before they suffered heavy damage from the June 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption. In September that year, the Philippine Senate voted to close them down permanently.
The US routinely refuses to confirm or deny their warships or aircraft carry nuclear weapons.
“We’re also trying to strengthen the language to include chemical and biological weapons, and weapons prohibited under international humanitarian law,” Sorreta added.
He said they are drafting the agreement in a way it won’t have to be ratified by the Philippine Senate. “The Supreme Court has laid down the rules on what should go to the Senate and what may not,” he explained, “We’re negotiating this in such a way that juridically it will not have to go to the Senate.”
However, they are keeping lawmakers in the loop as talks progress. “We have committed to brief members of Congress, most of them in executive session. After every round we write to update them,” he revealed.
The presence of these modern US weapons will be a boon for the Philippine military, assured Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino.
Along with the dearth of modern equipment, Filipino soldiers have also fallen behind the technological proficiency of counterparts throughout much of Southeast Asia. ABS-CBN News learned this is one of the biggest obstacles for the Philippines to acquire newer military equipment from the US.
“The Philippines will have access to those weapons in terms of training,” Sorreta emphasized. “We’re talking about expanding our capability to defend our territory; we’re getting early training on sophisticated aircraft and maintaining them so that we ourselves can defend it.”
One area Philippine officials appear excited about is the opportunity for Filipinos to participate in long-range US patrols, including aboard the P-3 “Orion” surveillance plane which the Philippines is reportedly eager to acquire from the US. The P-3s are being replaced by the P-8 “Poseidon” raising the possibility they will become available as Excess Defense Articles where the Philippines – as a “major non-NATO ally” can get first dibs.
The US could also help the Philippine military modernize their facilities. “There will be construction involved because we want to strengthen our own infrastructure,” Sorreta said.
“For example, we will be buying jets. These things need to be hangared in a very different way to be able to maintain them,” he said.
While the Philippines still didn’t have those jets, those new hangars could be housing US jets.
After agreeing that the US would not establish a permanent military presence, Sorreta said the next rounds could finally delve on “what kind of activities, where it can be done and for how long”.
“We have to distinguish between duration of the agreement and the duration of the activities,” he explained. Activities, Sorreta added, have to be negotiated individually.
And Batino pointed out those “activities” could be done anywhere in the country, including Scarborough Shoal or Kalayaan Islands in the Spratlys. “It’s our territory, we can approve any activity; our thrust is to uplift the capability of the AFP.”