Senate approves PH-Australia military pact

by Jorge Cariño, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 24 2012 08:39 PM | Updated as of Jul 25 2012 05:03 AM

Joker rejects SOVFA

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The Senate on Tuesday approved on third and final reading the ratification of the Status Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) between Philippine and Australian military troops.

Seventeen senators voted in favor of Senate Resolution No. 788, with only one lawmaker rejecting it.

"Concurrence with the ratification of the SOVFA will not only pave the way for us to improve our defense mechanisms, it will also solidify our decades old relationship with Australia, especially in the fields of trade and industry," Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said in a press statement.

In his vote, Enrile said that even during World War 2, when he served in the resistance movement, he found Australia as a more reliable ally than the United States.

The Senate resolution concurred with President Benigno Aquino's ratification of the Philippines-Australia SOVFA, which sets enhanced bilateral defense and military cooperation between the 2 countries.

The agreement, however, bans military exercises in protected areas, ancestral domain areas, critical watersheds and protected forest areas. Any environmental damage caused by troops of either country will be subject to claims and compensation.

The SOVFA also calls on Canberra to cooperate with Manila to prevent any abuse of the privileges given to its troops when they are in the country.

"Authorities of the receiving state have jurisdiction over visiting forces with respect to offenses committed within the receiving state and punishable by the law of the receiving state, but not by the law of the sending state," it states.

This provision was included to avoid a repeat of the case of US Corporal Daniel Smith, who was accused of raping a Filipina in 2005. Smith was acquitted after the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court and ordered his immediate release from prison, according to a Senate statement.

Since 2001, Australia has been holding counter-terrorism training and providing mutual training assistance to the Philippines to develop the interoperatibility of the 2 countries' Army and Navy special operations units.

Joker hints China backlash

Senator Joker Arroyo, who cast the lone "no" vote on the SOVFA, warned that the agreement may result in a backlash from China.

"Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China," he said.

The Philippines and China are currently locked in a dispute over territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.

"We have not ratified the SOVFA between Australia and the Philippines for two years because we did not see the need for it. But because of our problem with China which claims some islands in the West Philippine Sea which are ours, we suddenly want to ratify it," Arroyo said.

"Why? Are we trying to say that other than the U.S., we also have other allies like Australia?" he asked.

"ASEAN, our regional friends and geographically close to us, hesitate to lend us their token support. Why should we enlist Australia, which is so far away and an out and out ally of the U.S. to be our ally too? " he added.

Senators Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who are also strong critics of the resolution, were absent in Tuesday's session.

Palace, military welcome pact

Malacañang and the military welcomed the Senate approval of the agreement.

The Office of the President, in a press statement, said described the ratification of the SOVFAas "an important step in enhancing our national and regional security."

"Long ratified by the Australian Parliament, the SOVFA has been pending in the Senate since 2008. We thank the Senate for this historically significant action," the Palace added.
Armed Forces spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos said the agreement will benefit both countries' defense capabilities, particularly that of the Philippines.

"Australia is a key ally in this part of the region. The SOVFA will further strengthen bilateral ties as we upgrade our soldiers knowledge and skills," he said.