Philippines split over increased U.S. military presence

Bobby M. Tuazon
Posted by CenPEG / 14 April 2023

As the Philippines and U.S. deepen their defense alliance by holding joint military drills in northern Philippines with about 18,000 troops participating, a momentum opposed to the alliance is gaining ground. Some leaders of local governments at the potential Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites have opposed Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s decision, worried they would be dragged into a conflict if one arose between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. A similar opposition is perking up as various anti-U.S. progressive organizations led by Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance) are holding protest rallies at the U.S. Embassy in Manila and in front of the central defense headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) elsewhere.

The issue over the enhanced defense partnership between the Philippines and its former colonial master, the U.S., has gained ground since September last year. In a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House, the Philippine president expressed his commitment to stronger defense relations saying that the U.S. is a traditional ally coming to the country’s defense when needed. Their meeting was followed by a series of joint planning condultations between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Philippine counterpart at the Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii and currently, between Austin and State Secretary Antony Blinken, on the one hand, and Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez and Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, on the other.

Philippine ambassador to the U.S. and Marcos cousin, Jose Manuel Romualdez, has revealed that more strategic sites are planned to be opened for U.S. forces under EDCA in addition to the nine existing. Presently under EDCA, the Camilo Osias Naval Base in Sta. Ana town and Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo town, both in Cagayan province; Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Gamu town, Isabela province; and Balabac Island in Palawan province were made accessible to US forces. These sites were in addition to the five locations earlier identified under the pact: Basa Air Base in Pampanga province, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu province.

It is clear that EDCA sites made accessible to the U.S. forces are all over the country aside from the northern locations near Taiwan. The sites allow the U.S. to preposition its air, land, and ground forces and equipment in the Philippines in preparation for a potential conflict with China either over Taiwan or around the disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea (SCS). That “preparation” is emerging to be an U.S. option in the wake of increasing reports that American military strategists are gearing up for a war scenario against China in a few years.

Despite denials by the Philippine president that the EDCA bases will not be used for any offensive action he also adds that they will still be used if the country needs help, i.e., U.S. “We will not allow our bases to be used for any offensive action. This is only to help the Philippines when the Philippines needs help,” the President said. Beijing earlier warned that the expansion of U.S. access to Philippine military bases would endanger stability in the region short of saying that it will provoke a war.

Marcos, Jr. cannot escape from accountability in dragging the Philippines to a possible U.S. war on China not only because of his unilateral commitments to expand Philippine-U.S. defense alliance but also because of his permission – which could have been preventable – allowing greater U.S. military access to more domestic bases. As a result not only Americans but also other foreign forces – Australia, Japan, and even France – have signed up for joint arms drills.

Historically since 1947, U.S. armed personnel in the Philippines have committed cases of civilian atrocities including rape and unprovoked killings. Not one of those involved have been imprisoned let alone prosecuted. It will not be surprising if such cases will happen once more as U.S. forces continue their operations that will endanger the lives of Filipinos and violate the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In 1991 under the pressure of a strong anti-bases movement, the Philippine Senate voted not to ratify an executive agreement seeking to extend the onerous 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA). The way the anti-U.S. forces protest movement in Philippines is lending its voice of resistance it will not be far-fetched to expect a scenario reminiscent of the 1991 vote.


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