House leaders back bases access pact

By Paolo Romero, The Philippine Star

Posted at Mar 17 2014 09:07 AM | Updated as of Mar 17 2014 05:07 PM

MANILA - Leaders of the House of Representatives are supporting the new security agreement being forged between the Philippines and the US, saying it could serve as a credible deterrent against China’s increasing aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea.

Deputy Speaker and Isabela Rep. Giorgidi Aggabao and Deputy Majority Leader Sherwin Tugna welcomed news that the Philippines and the US have moved closer to signing an agreement that would increase the “rotational presence” of American troops in the country.

Aggabao cited the strong presence of US troops in South Korea as “a strong counterfoil to North Korean aggression” that is preventing Pyongyang from launching attacks.

He said the presence of US forces in Japan has also deterred China from taking control of the disputed Senkaku Islands.

“The American presence is a credible deterrent,” Aggabao said. “While I don’t espouse the grant of any basing rights for Americans in our country, not just yet, there is no question their increased rotational presence in the country is the next best thing to daunt the Chinese.”

Tugna said the planned increase of deployment of US troops in the country is timely in light of the recent disturbing incidents in the West Philippine Sea where two Filipino vessels were driven out of Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) by a Chinese coast guard vessel, and similar aggressive acts against Filipino fishermen in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

“For me, our country should continue with the agreement as it would help in training our armed forces to protect our territory against intrusion of other countries. This will also help in protecting against internal conflicts in our country,” Tugna said.

Parañaque City Rep Gustavo Tambunting said the agreement must be closely scrutinized by Congress to make sure there are no violations of the Constitution and there would be no ambiguities that will give rise to problems in the future.

“There will be a violation of the Constitution if an unlimited and unqualified use of Philippine territory or bases is allowed to the US military,” Tambunting pointed out. “We must make sure there is no room in this agreement for multiple interpretations by both sides.”

Sensitive issue

Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz, however, said the government should prioritize diplomatic approaches and consider the negative implications of allowing more US forces in the country, which could further strain relations with China.

“This is very sensitive, it has the possibility of being misinterpreted by the Chinese as part of an effort to encircle them and may further degrade our already deteriorating relations with China and other countries in the ASEAN,” De la Cruz said.

Senators led by Senate President Franklin Drilon called on the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to brief Congress on the new security deal.

Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara echoed the call of Drilon and warned about going against the Constitution in view of the supposed enhanced security agreement between the Philippines and the US.

“I think Senate President Drilon is right when he sees the need to ask for a briefing from the DND and the DFA to determine what the new agreement with the US really is all about,” Angara said.

A briefing for the senators is necessary to clear all doubts about the agreement, at least before it is signed by the two parties, Angara said.

He said he has not seen the details of the actual agreement since it is still in the negotiating stage.

“Even the SP (Senate President) and Miriam (Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago) have not seen it,” he said.

Santiago earlier said any agreement on an enhanced military cooperation between the Philippines and the US is a treaty by nature requiring ratification of the Senate.

Angara noted the existing defense agreements with the US like the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty.

“We want to see what are the details of this new agreement and if there is a need for the concurrence of the Senate,” he said.

On the issue of allowing US troops to construct bases in the existing military bases in the country, Angara said Article 18 of the Constitution provides the need for Senate approval in terms of permanent basing by foreign troops in the country.

Asked if the Senate should just believe Malacañang if the increased US military presence would be under an executive agreement, Angara maintained Congress should at least be notified.

“We believe in them (Malacañang). But who will be made accountable if it turns out to be a flawed agreement? As an independent branch of the government, we need to know the details. Whether it’s an executive agreement or a treaty, it should have a solid legal footing,” he said. Malacañang insisted that there is no need for the Senate to ratify the agreement since it “merely implements the general provisions” of the two countries’ past defense agreements.

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 1987 Constitution and existing laws.

Repeated assurance

Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. of the Presidential Communications Operations Office repeated the assurances given by the Philippine panel in their latest round of talks with their US counterparts in Washington recently.

“The proposed agreement will allow the sharing of defined areas within certain AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) facilities with elements of the US military on a rotational basis within parameters consistent with the Philippine Constitution and laws,” he said.

“This fresh round has clearly shown the shared commitment of both parties to enhance cooperation in defense, security and related fields, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” Coloma added.

He said the US panel agreed to the inclusion of provisions on environment and safety, and opportunities for potential Philippine suppliers of goods, products and services.

Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino, chairman of the Philippine panel negotiating the defense cooperation deal with the US, said there is a requirement that the presence of US troops in the Philippine military bases would be temporary.

Batino led the panel in assuring the pubic the new deal on enhanced defense cooperation would comply with the Constitution and existing laws.

Batino added the agreement does not need to be ratified by the Senate because it is just an implementing document of the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement.

Defense department spokesman Peter Galvez explained the proposed deal on enhanced security cooperation with the US will merely implement previously ratified agreements.

“We respectfully reiterate that the proposed agreement on enhanced defense cooperation with the US is an implementation of previously ratified agreements namely the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Galvez said.

If an agreement is just an implementation of a treaty, Galvez said it would not require the ratification of the Senate.

Galvez also defended the proposed access deal from critics who claim that it violates the Philippines’ sovereignty. He said the negotiations are guided by the Constitution.

“There is no sovereignty issue here. Everything will be within the Constitution and existing laws,” the defense official said.

Militant groups have branded the negotiations as illegal and have accused the Aquino administration of selling off the country’s sovereignty to the US.

The new security deal is being negotiated by the two allies amid mounting concern over China’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Talks on a proposed deal on enhanced defense cooperation between Manila and Washington hit an impasse late last year due to the failure of both sides to reach a consensus on American facilities to be set up in the country.

Under the draft accord, the Philippines will allow US forces joint use of facilities in several military bases like in Manila, Clark, Palawan, Cebu, Nueva Ecija and La Union.

But the use by US forces of civilian airfields and ports, like Subic Freeport Bay, Laoag and Davao international airports, is not allowed. – Christina Mendez, Delon Porcalla, AlexisRomero