MANILA - An agreement on an enhanced military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States is a treaty by nature requiring Senate ratification, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said yesterday.
With negotiations now in their final stages, Manila has agreed to give the US access to Philippine military bases.
Officials have stressed access is different from basing, and the US has repeatedly said it is not interested in re-establishing military bases in the Philippines.
The new security deal is being negotiated by the two allies amid China’s increasing assertiveness in staking its claims in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.
Santiago argued that any agreement involving the posting of troops and war equipment in another sovereign state is a treaty.
She said that while the president is authorized to negotiate or even approve an agreement, such deal “should only be limited to a topic connected to a prior treaty.”
She said it would not be right for the government to invoke the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of the 1950s as the “prior treaty” since allowing foreign troops and equipment on Philippine soil “is a major subject in itself” and “not a minor case of detail.”
“So it cannot be classified as an executive agreement but as a treaty to which the Philippine Senate must give its concurrence,” she added.
Chief presidential legal counsel Benjamin Caguioa, however, said, “It is the Philippine panel’s position” that an agreement on enhanced defense cooperation “merely implements the general provisions” of the MDT and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and does not have to be ratified by the Senate.
“These two treaties have been concurred in by the Philippine Senate in separate instances. Thus there is no need for Senate ratification for this implementing Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation,” Caguioa said in a statement coursed through Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.
Under Philippine laws, all treaties would have to go through the Senate for concurrence before they take effect.
Philippine officials involved in the negotiations have given assurance that the agreement on enhanced defense cooperation would comply with the provisions of the Constitution and existing laws.
Santiago said she is not receptive to the idea of negotiating with the US if the point is to merely send a message to China to stop its aggression.
She said China is not interested in waging war with its Southeast Asian neighbors, and that the giant nation is only trying to divide the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) so that it could enter into separate exploitation or joint venture agreements on mineral and energy exploration.
Santiago advised the executive branch to let the Senate examine the deal or risk having it challenged before the Supreme Court (SC).
“The Senate is going to scream because we always fight for our power to concur with any ratification made by the President. That will become a constitutional issue and the case will automatically be elevated to the Supreme Court,” she said. “So it’s much better to have the Senate to concur with its ratification.”
Sen. Sergio Osmeña III also cited the need for the Senate to review whatever final agreement is reached between the Philippines and the US.
For Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, any agreement with the US aimed at improving the Philippines’ defense capabilities should be welcomed provided no local laws are violated.
He said any party who wants to question the constitutionality of the agreement should turn to the SC for help.
Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon also said an agreement on greater military cooperation with the US may have to be ratified by the Senate.
He said there are three conditions for a treaty or an executive agreement for it to require Senate ratification.
“These are if the treaty or agreement is political in nature, if it is permanent or if it would require a change in national policy. If any of these exists, then Senate approval is a must,” Biazon said. “The Senate will determine that once it sees the provisions of the envisioned agreement.”
Biazon chairs the House of Representatives defense committee. He was Senate defense committee chairman when he was a senator.
He said the Constitution explicitly bans the presence in the country of foreign military bases and troops.
However, the country has allowed rotational presence for the US military under the VFA.
For militant groups, the agreement is unconstitutional from the beginning and unlikely to boost the country’s position against Chinese bullying.
“We should stand against China’s bullying but we should get the support of the international community instead of the US. We will win the cases we filed against China under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) because China has no evidence to back up its territorial claim. This is the more powerful and peaceful way of dealing with China,” party-list group Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said.
“The Filipino people ousted the bases in 1991 not only because their presence violated our sovereignty but they were also magnets for attack from the many enemies of the United States,” he said.
“The presence of US troops here will increase the tension in the region and threaten its stability. We do not want to become another Iraq, where the US troops remained even if Saddam Hussein has long been dead,” he said.
“We must stand up for our sovereignty and uphold the dignity of our country by not becoming a colony once again. We must resist bullying, whether by China or the US,” he added.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said the planned security cooperation, if approved, would be equivalent to extending the life of the terminated bases agreement.
He said instead of another basing agreement with the US, the government should terminate the MDT and the VFA.
“The US has a lot of enemies around the world, and we can be embroiled in war if there is an armed attack against the US because we are bound under the MDT to help in cases of attacks against them,” Zarate said.
“This is dangerous and only makes us cannon fodder no different from how the US treated our war veterans during World War II,” he said.
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said allowing US access to Philippine military bases is a “de facto basing agreement disguised as an access pact.”
“The US will gain not only access but also the ability to set up their own facilities within Philippine facilities. The US forces will also be allowed to preposition weapons and equipment, on top of stationing an indefinite number of troops in the country for an indefinite period of time,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes said.
“The new military treaty is bound to be as perfidious and violative of Philippine sovereignty as all previous agreements” such as the MDT and the VFA, according to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) said.
Meanwhile, efforts to upgrade key military bases are not related to the proposed deal on enhanced security cooperation with the US, Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino said.
“What is most important regarding the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) modernization program is its own capability upgrade regardless of its bilateral relations,” Batino said in a press briefing over the weekend.
“We are upgrading our capabilities in terms of bases, in terms of procurement of modern defense equipment, because it is our right and duty to do so,” he added.
Batino heads the Philippine panel negotiating a new defense deal with the US.
The Philippines is acquiring equipment to improve its military bases, some of which are located within or near the West Philippine Sea.
Installations being readied for upgrade include the one in Ulugan Bay in Palawan, which has an approved budget of P500 million.
The Navy previously said the improvement would enable the facility to accommodate large ships, including two strategic sealift vessels to be acquired for P4 billion and two frigates worth P18 billion. – With Jess Diaz, Aurea Calica, Rhodina Villanueva, Alexis Romero